How we think

'How to Think: Understanding the Way We Decide, Remember and Make Sense of the World' by John Paul Minda (Robinson), reviewed by Dr Philip Fine.

An approachable and engaging book about cognitive psychology for the curious lay reader, How to Think doesn’t require much prior knowledge about cognition, but an ability to follow arguments and quite complex discussions. John Paul Minda writes: ‘…if you want to understand why people – and you – behave in a certain way, it helps to understand how they think…’ and to enable that ‘…it helps to understand the basic principles of cognitive psychology, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience’ (p.8). This is what How to Think is about.

Minda, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, has a research background in concepts and categories. Unsurprisingly, he is fond of using conceptual metaphor and analogy to explain complicated ideas. Minda relates complex ideas to familiar real-world experiences, bringing the topics to life. He uses anecdotes and examples from his youth, his home life (occasionally involving his cat, Peppermint), his teaching and his experience of COVID-19 lockdown.

The book starts with the history of cognitive psychology and an overview of the brain and how its study is relevant to cognition, before tackling the classic areas of perception, attention, memory, concepts and categories, language and thought, reasoning, and decision making. Later chapters on inductive and deductive reasoning and that on decision making were rather more complex and more philosophical than the earlier chapters, and their details may tax some readers. The important topic of cognitive bias is given its own chapter, accompanied by a discussion of political bias, gun ownership, and fake news.

There are plenty of cross-references between chapters, reflecting the heavily integrative nature of cognitive psychology. Language and thought have strong links (think Sapir-Whorf), as do memory and attention, and Minda makes these connections explicit. Without the constraints of a textbook, How to Think goes into detail about specific studies and people, and Minda puts flesh onto the bones of certain key psychologists, such as Skinner and Chomsky. Even as a seasoned cognitive psychologist, I learned about research and details of cognitive concepts of which I was not previously aware.

There were a few missed opportunities. I would have liked brief notes for each chapter with more detail and references, as many claims are made without references. More diagrams and figures would have helped illustrate and explain certain concepts.

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in cognitive psychology or simply understanding human behaviour. Just ask Peppermint the cat – I’m sure she’ll agree.

- Reviewed by Dr Philip Fine, School of Psychology, University of Buckingham, Twitter: @philip_fine

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