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Prescriptions for imperfect minds from Gary F. Marcus

Posted on the April 24th, 2008

The human mind is not elegantly designed, according to New York University psychologist Gary F. Marcus, who is featured in a recent Q&A article (online) in Scientific American (“Infant Language and the Imperfect Human Mind,” April 23, 2008). Rather, he tells editor Jonah Lehrer, the mind is “a cobbled together contraption.”

Lehrer talks particularly to Marcus about his new book, “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.” The final two questions were especially interesting:

LEHRER: Your book ends with a series of prescriptions for helping us make better use of our imperfect mind. Is there one prescription that you think is particularly important? Which piece of advice do you have the toughest time following?

MARCUS: The most important piece of advice might be the one that says, “Don’t just set goals, make specific contingencies plans”—good advice that follows from the studies of my colleague [psychologist] Peter Gollwitzer [of New York University]. It’s important because it’s the best band-aid we’ve got for dealing with one of the more problematic kluges in our evolution: the split between a set of really ancient brain mechanisms that tend to be short-sighted and automatic and a more modern set of “deliberative” mechanisms that do their best to take the long view. As a species, we humans are the only creature that’s smart enough to make long-term plans, but most of the time no matter how foresighted we might be, in the heat of the moment, our ancestral reflexive systems still tend to hold sway. By converting abstract goals (like a desire to lose weight) into specific if-then statements (e.g., “If I see the dessert menu, then I’ll sit on my hands and discuss the election rather than choosing a dessert”), we can trick the older systems into following the sometimes-wiser goals of our more modern deliberative systems.

The hardest one?…

Read more here.

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