Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. 211 pp.)

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Language and Music at New York University, where he studies language and cognitive development. He is also the author of the book Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.

The Not-So-Elegant Mind

I read Marcus’ most recent book, Guitar Zero not long ago, and decided I liked what he had to say about cognitive development, especially in regard to how one learns music. In Kluge, Marcus gives an overview of the human mind, arguing it isn’t as sophisticated as we often claim.

“Where Shakespeare imagined infinite reason, I see something else, what engineers call a ‘kluge.’ A kluge is a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem” (2).

Photo by NASA

Marcus offers the story of Apollo 13 mission control engineer, Ed Smylie, as an example of a well-known kluge. By “MacGuyvering” the scenario, the engineers developed a far from graceful solution in which the astronauts fixed the faulty C02 on board with some items, chief among which were duct tape and a sock.

Marcus continues his thesis by outlining where kluginess and elegance coexist in many places. I’ll sketch out the memory, belief, and choice kluges, my favorite—and most personally enlightening—moments in the novel.

Memory Kluge

I admit; I’m forgetful. I misplace my keys; I leave my phone in innumerable places, and if it’s raining, a miracle has occurred when I wear a raincoat. My memory is a constant source of disappointment. With contextual memory, neurons don’t always align properly.

“Context exerts its powerful effect—sometimes helping us, sometimes not—in part by ‘priming’ the pump of our memory; when I hear the word doctor, it becomes easier to recognize the word nurse” (24).

Marcus also notes what actually happens rarely matches with when it occurs as a common memory kluge. Generally, the more recent the event, the more vivid the memory. Once events are no more than a few weeks or months removed, the past blurs together. Perhaps more interesting, Marcus states that we rarely forget the things we want to forget and rarely remember the things we want to remember.

“What we remember and what we forget are a function of context, frequency, and recency, not a means of attaining inner peace. It’s possible to imagine a robot that could automatically expunge all unpleasant memories, but we humans are just not built that way” (38).

A Kluge of Beliefs


The elegance and kluginess of the human mind continues through the way we believe things. Marcus argues,

“No matter what we humans think about, we tend to pay more attention to stuff that fits in with our beliefs than stuff that might challenge them. Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias.’ When we have embraced a theory, large or small, we tend to be better at noticing evidence that supports it than evidence that might run counter to it” (53).

Photo by Bill Ledbetter

Using a pastiche of horoscopes, Marcus illustrates his point.

“You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside” (40).

In reading this statement, you might think, “Gee, the description sounds a lot like me!” But, in reality, Marcus compiled several horoscopes put together by a famed psychologist. The point being, we believe bland generalities to be directly aimed at us even when they aren’t specifically written for us.

Marcus also points to the logical syllogism, a highly evolved way of deductive reasoning. Even when we have little at stake, and when it doesn’t directly affect our ego, our knowledge contaminates our ego. Marcus provides two examples:

“All men are mortal                               All glorks are frum
Socrates was a man.                              Skeezer is a glork.
Therefore, Socrates was mortal.            Therefore, Skeezer is frum “ (60-61).

Both syllogisms follow the same structure, but if you insert new words into the major and minor premises, the argument makes little sense. We train our brains to do the syllogism on the right well, but it doesn’t make sense without our preconceived definitions of words we already know.

Marcus offers one more syllogism to further his point,

“All living things need water.
Roses need water.
Therefore, roses are living things” (61).

We are more apt to believe the argument because it works. Yes, roses need water! But, nonliving things need water too (Marcus offers the example of a car battery). The argument that all X’s need Y, Z’s need Y, therefore Z’s are X’s is logically unsound. According to Marcus, in favor of easier, prior beliefs, we often suspend a careful analysis of what really is.

Choice Kluge

Lastly, the choice kluge is best illustrated in a a video that Marcus references in the chapter. A psychologist offers a child one marshmallow, offering a second marshmallow if the child maintains self-control until the psychologist returns. The psychologist then leaves the room, and comes back around 15-20 minutes later. During this time, most children eat the marshmallow.

“Giving up after 15 minutes is a choice that could only really make sense under two circumstances: (1) the kids were so hungry that having the marshmallow now could stave off true starvation or (2) their prospects for a long and healthy life were so remote that the 20-minute future versions of themselves, which would get the two marshmallows, simply weren’t worth planning for. Barring these rather remote possibilities, the children who gave in were behaving in an entirely irrational fashion” (70).

We all too often surrender our judgment to the subconscious, or blindly trust our instincts without actually thinking. For this reason, the choices we make are often wrong.

Humanity: One Giant Kluge

Marcus argues humans are really one giant Kluge. He states in the first page of the book that because we are so poorly-yet-elegantly made, we aren’t noble in mind as Shakespeare, the noble bard, would suggest. Kluge is a great read, offering some keen insight into the way the human mind works.

Verdict:4 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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