Illustration by Miao Xiaochun

Illustration by Miao Xiaochun

Although, like many philosophers and romantic poets, we might think that our minds are flying high and skies are the limits of our abilities, sadly, it’s not so. In fact, as decades of experiments in the field of cognitive psychology shows,  human mind is very limited and VERY far from perfect. This realization, if taken seriously, can help us use it more effectively.

skull1I sincerely hope so, for my brain is organ of limitless imperfection. And I take it very seriously by laughing it off. Perhaps, when I realize just HOW FAR removed from perfection is my brain, I can use its deficiency more efficiently. This is the idea I’ve got from  Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, a book authored by Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University.

KLUGE (noun, informal):

  •  an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose;
  • in the computer world: a clunky, unpolished, quickly thrown together, “solution” that accomplishes the required task;
  • a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective solution—to a problem. 


Chapter 1, page 1: “If mankind were the product of some intelligent, compassionate designer, our thoughts would be rational, our logic impeccable. Our memory would be robust, our recollections reliable.”  

There are exceptions, surely, but generally human brains evolved as a perfect kluge –lacking elegance, yet surprisingly serviceable and effective solution to a problem of complete brainlessness.

Dr. Marcus points out that brain isn’t the only anatomical implement in human body that is nothing but a kluge.

Take spine, for instance, “which is a lousy solution to supporting the load in an upright, two-legged creature. It would have made a lot more sense to distribute our weight across four cross-braced columns. Instead, all our weight is borne by a single column, putting enormous stress on the spine. (…) The spine evolved from that of four legged creatures, and standing up poorly is better than not standing at all.” (p. 5)

No matter how you look at it, our entire body is a kluge, and brain is no exception. Every point reached by evolution is a point of no return. Our brain cannot turn back and reinvent itself from scratch. The only way to find the least harmful way forward is to build upon itself, layer by layer, on top of our more primitive reptilian brains. And — surprise! — it works, Dr. Marcus says. However, it affects out thinking big time. 

“Natural selection therefore tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages, discarding other options that might function better in the long term.” (p.12). “The end product tends to be a kluge.” (p. 14).

markus1Chapter 2: Memory is the “mother of all kluges.”  “Human memory is in many ways a recalcitrant mess.” (p. 20) Perhaps, humans would do better with a “postal code memory,” where every info-bit of info neatly staffed into the addressed slot, for ease of retrieval. But no such luck. Our memory is highly contextual.  We tend to “pull things out of our memory by using context, or clues, that hints at what we are looking for.” (p. 21)  Rats, monkeys, insects and even snails do the same.

We “remember what we know about gardening when we are in the garden,” and “remember what we know about cooking when we’re in the kitchen.” (p. 21) This type of memory helped lower animals survive.

For this we, the higher animals, pay the price — reliability. Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? If not, it’s because “yesterday’s breakfast is too easily confused with that of the day before, and the day before that.” (p. 23). “Whenever context changes, there’s a problem.”  Constantly revised, memories blur and fade, distort and confuse.

“To build a truly reliable memory, fit for the requirement of human deliberative reasoning, evolution would have had to start over. And despite its power and elegance, that’s the one thing evolution just can’t do.” (p. 39).

markusChapter 3: Beliefs. We (most of us? some of us?) sincerely believe we are logical, objective, rational creatures. We (most of us? some of us?) are wrong, Marcus argues.

“…our capacity for belief is haphazard, scarred by evolution and contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest.” (p. 41).

“Because evolution built belief mainly out of off-the-shelf components that evolved for other purposes, we often lose track of where our beliefs come from—if we ever knew—and even worse, we are often completely unaware of how much we are influenced by irrelevant information.” (p. 42)

“We feel as if our beliefs are based on cold, hard facts, but often they are shaped by our ancestral system in subtle ways that we are not even aware of.” (p. 53).

“Once we decide something is true (for whatever reason), we often make up reasons for believing it.” People tend to approach concepts and ideas more cautiously if they don’t like than if they do. “Were often forced to act rather than think.” (p. 68). Because we are evolved creatures, that’s why.

Chapter 4: Our choices. We base our choices on dealing with immediate problems rather than on the future. Yet again, we act  just like the lower animals from the lower rungs of evolution ladder. Marcus quotes a line from his father, “all choices are emotional.” (p.87). “When context tells us one thing, but rationality another, rationality often loses.” (p.84)

Chapter 5: Any known language is less than perfect, since language evolved with our brains “To be perfect, a language would presumably have to be unambiguous, systematic, stable, nonredundant, and capable of expressing any and all of our thoughts.” (p. 97).

Chapter 6: The ideal adaptation is pleasure. “…the pleasure system as a whole is a kluge, from top to bottom.” (p. 127). “In short, we do everything in our power to make ourselves happy and comfortable with the world, but we stand perfectly ready to lie to ourselves if the truth doesn’t cooperate.” (p. 142)

Chapter 7: What we become “when things fall apart.” People are prone to distraction, procrastination, frustration, frightfulness… Look around you and into yourself. Nearly 25% of us  “suffers from one clinical disorder or another.” (p. 149).  “…it seems safe to say that no intelligent and compassionate designer would have built the human mind to be quite as vulnerable as it is.” (p. 160).

Darvin1What shame! What misery! What is there to be done?

“..the truth is that without special training, our species is inherently gullible.” (p. 174)

  • 1) Whenever possible, consider alternative hypotheses;
  • 2) Reframe the question;
  • 3) Always remember that correlation does not entail causation;
  • 4) Never forget the size of your sample;
  • 5) Anticipate your own impulsivity and pre-commit[ment];
  • 6) Don’t just set goals. Make contingency plans;
  • 7) Whenever possible, don’t make important decisions when you are tired or have other things on your mind;
  • 8) Always weigh benefits against costs;
  • 9) Imagine that your decisions may be spot-checked;
  • 10) Distance yourself;
  • 11) Beware the vivid, the personal, and the anecdotal;
  • 12) Pick your spots;
  • 13) Try to be rational.

As if we didn’t know…


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