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Human Mind Product of Chaotic Evolutionary Path, NYU Psychology Professor Concludes in New Book

April 11, 2008
N-399, 2007-2008

The human mind, far from being a highly efficient computer, is in fact the product of a bumpy evolutionary path, serving as a marvelous storage facility but operating as a shaky retrieval system, concludes New York University’s Gary Marcus in his new book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin).

“Kluge,” a term popularized by computer pioneer Jackson Granholm, is “an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole.”

The fundamental difference between computers and the human mind is in the basic organization of memory, Marcus observes. While computers organize everything they store according to physical or logical locations, the human brain stores millions of memories, but has no idea where they are located-information is retrieved not by knowing where it is, but by using cues or clues that hint at what we are looking for.

He contends that evolution has produced a complex, but overloaded, neurological system that utilizes “contextual memory”-we retrieve material out of our memories by using context or clues that hint at what we are looking for. Thus, the system is built for speed rather than reliability, and is better at the quick retrieval of general information rather than specific details.

“In the best-case situation, this process works well: the particular memory we need just ‘pops’ into our minds, automatically and effortlessly,” Marcus, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, writes in the New York Times Magazine. “The catch, however, is that our memories can easily get confused, especially when a given set of cues points to more than one memory. What we can remember at any given moment also depends heavily on the accidents of which bits of mental flotsam and jetsam happen to be mentally active at that instant. Our mood, our environment—even our posture—can all influence our delicate memories.”

Marcus, director of NYU’s Center for Child Language, is the author of The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004) and editor of The Norton Psychology Reader (W.W. Norton, 2005).

Reporters interested in speaking with Marcus should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or

For more, go to

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science, Research

Type: Press Release


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