Steven Pinker Explains How The Brain Works in Five Words [1]

[ Wed. Feb. 7. 2007 ]

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... [STEPHEN COLBERT:] Your specialty is the brain and how it works. Right?


It's a complicated subject. How does the brain work? Five words or less.

Brain cells fire in patterns.

Brain cells fire in patterns. Not bad.  And these patterns establish our behavior and stuff like that,

A pattern corresponds to a thought. One patterns causes another pattern, that's what happen when we think.

OK. Let me ask you something. You're also, you're also, uh, language is very important to you. Umm, uhh, wha wha, what, why is language important?

It's the way we get our thoughts across. It's the way we cooperate, the way we share our knowledge…

How important is volume? I find if I'm trying to get an idea across if I shout it at the person I'm saying it to, it makes it seem more important. Is that common?

I think that's common, unfortunately, yes.

Now, uh, your book here, you've got a book called  The Blank Slate, The Human Denial of Nature. What are we denying about human nature, Sir?

A lot of people are upset about the very idea that there is such a thing as human nature. Some people fear that …

Well, that God gave us our nature.

Some people fear that human nature is a product of evolution, rather than a  …

I don’t fear it I deny it. I'm not afraid of evolution because I know it's not really there. I'm not afraid of ghosts either.

Some people are afraid of the idea that if were born with any kind of talent or temperaments,  then different people can be born with different talents and temperaments, and that seems to open the door to discrimination and oppression. Some people are upset that if we have any kind of instincts we may have selfish and nasty instincts and that would seem to get in the way of hopes for social reform. Why try to make the world a better place if people are rotten to the core and we'll just foul it up no matter what you  do.

Well I say some people get it some people just don’t.

Well, that would imply that there are differences among people.

There are.

And there are people that would want to deny that there could be differences among people and if we all start off with nothing then by definition we're all the same.

No, we don't all start off with nothing in my opinion, if I may, and I may because it's my show, I don't think we start off with nothing. I think we can achieve nothing. I think we can become a blank slate. I've worked very hard over the years to stop thinking and now I'm empty inside. What do you think people have, uh, what do you think people have instinctually other than original sin. What do they have when they're born? ...

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