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Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

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Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is mostly or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle.

I have now, somewhat reluctantly, come to the conclusion that almost everything we think we know about our own mind is a hoax, played on us by our own brains.


He has reached this position on the basis of what science has told us about visual perception and brain function. He demonstrates this by means of visual illusions and by asking us to perform mental exercises in which we try to manipulate an imaginary wire cube or describe how a tiger's stripes flow over its body without looking at a picture of a tiger. The aim is to show how inaccurate, incomplete and ad hoc is our apprehension of our surroundings, whether we are perceiving them in reality or imagination.

Experiments have shown that our visual mechanism can focus on only one item at a time. The impression we have that we can take in a whole visual scene at once, at a glance, is an illusion constructed by our brains. And the same is true of our thoughts; we can think only one thought at a time. So there is no internal landscape in which unconscious thoughts can roam at will, and therefore there can be no unconscious thoughts. (This doesn't mean that there are no unconscious processes—quite the contrary.)

This account of how our minds work is counter-intuitive, which is presumably why it is not better known generally. Psychoanalysis gives us a different picture which is more in accord with 'folk psychology' and therefore seemingly more plausible. But it emerged from a mistaken approach to psychology on Freud's part. Although he claimed to be a scientist, his method was essentially literary. He based his ideas on case histories—stories which he narrated with considerable literary skill, almost as if he were writing fiction, which in fact he was. But this is not science.

This is how we experience characters in fiction. Chater illustrates this by treating Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as if she were a real person, bringing out what we know or might infer about her. The areas of knowledge and ignorance that exist in her case are similar to those that exist in our knowledge of real people and indeed ourselves. When we infer hidden motives, fears and desires in such cases we are making up stories of greater or lesser plausibility, no more. The principle of depth psychology is that, given the right techniques, we can infer what is going on 'inside', but we are creating verbal fictions, not practising science.

In this book I will argue for precisely the opposite viewpoint: that the charting of our hidden depths is not merely technically difficult but fundamentally misconceived; the very idea that our minds contain 'hidden depths' is utterly wrong. Our reflections on Anna Karenina's fatal act should point us, instead, to a radically different moral; that the interpretation of the motives of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters.


This is not a long book but it packs a huge amount of insights into its pages (though I'd like to have had more discussion of dreams). If Chater is right, most of us will need to revise a lot of our basic assumptions about ourselves.

It is tempting to imagine that thoughts can be divided in two as the waterline splits an iceberg; the visible conscious tip and the submerged bulk of the unconscious, vast, hidden and dangerous. Freud and later psychoanalysts saw the unconscious as the hidden force behind the frail and self-deluded conscious mind.


Much the same could be said of Jungian psychology, which has attracted a much greater array of interpreters than has Gormenghast. It isn't difficult to devote a lifetime to exploring the endless ramifications of Jung's work. But if Chater is right this would be a delusive enterprise.

But is he right? If he is, many of us, including me, will have to make a pretty far-reaching re-evaluation of our ideas, and from what he writes that didn't come easily even to him. So this is clearly an important book that merits plenty of rereading.

See also Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson

26-04-2018
%T The Mind Is Flat
%S The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind
%A Chater, Nick
%I Penguin
%C London
%P vii+223pp
%K psychology
%O kindle version downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk, 2018

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