Book Review: The Haphazard Construction Of The Human Mind

I recently finished reading Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. It's an entire book written just about the brain and how it works, so as you can imagine there's a lot of information in there to help learners. The book even contains an entire chapter about language.

Marcus repeatedly uses the word "context" when referring to human memory, in order to underscore the fact that human memory is not only not perfect, but it's not even well-designed for the purpose of learning facts. Our context-driven memory allows for faster recall of relevant information, but has little interest in whether or not that information is rational or even true.

As I'm quite fond of reminding people, our brains are little more than elaborate pattern-matching machines. They are not well-designed for information storage, like a computer, and that is precisely why learning methods like flashcards are so painful and ineffective.

In the chapter on language, the author describes the mental gymnastics necessary to get words to come out of our mouths at a rate at which communication can be effective without being painfully slow, describing how we must anticipate the next words even as we're saying the current word, explaining how taxing that actually is on the mind, and why it causes us to get tongue-tied even in our first language.

Throughout the book, Gary Marcus humbly reminds the reader time and time again of those imperfection in the human mind using himself as an example, which I found prompts the reader to probe his own mind for fallacies and flawed thinking — something that's hard enough to do anyway, but which no one willingly does when they feel threatened.

For anyone with an interest in language, it's a good book. For anyone with an interest in the human mind, or evolution in general, it's a great book. And for anyone with a passion for learning or teaching, I feel this book is a must-read.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Hi Randy,Just ordered it on Amazon for 4 pennies! Looks like a perfect read judging by the first couple of pages, thanks for the suggestion! 

  • Sounds like an interesting book...With reference to flashcard style learning - painful is a subjective assessment, but effectiveness can be measured objectively. My own experience is that using Anki (much better than simple flashcards, I must admit) has been a great boost for my language learning. It's given me the passive command of a much greater vocab and I also know of many times I've been able to use in conversation words that I've read and then added to Anki that I just would have otherwise completely forgotten. It makes me wish that I had had something like Anki on my phone 15 years ago when I was learning French!It's not perfect, and it's no silver bullet to fluency, but then nothing is in language learning, right?

  • Exactly!  It's too bad some language learners/translator-interpreters are such perfectionists, they fail to realize that nothing is perfect.

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