Nick Chater’s The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind has some highly impressive endorsements on the back and there’s been a bit of a buzz about it. Maybe that’s why I was a little disappointed. The book is a very enjoyable read. It canters through lots of issues about the limitations of our sense perceptions, with an emphasis on visual perception. There are lots of illustrations. Chater also writes very well, and even starts out by drawing a parallel with some of my favourite novels, the Gormenghast Trilogy: Gormenghast Castle feels real as you read the details Peake lovingly describes, but it could never fit together in real life.Similarly, Chater argues, “The mind itself is an impossible object.” It feels solid and coherent, but there is no there there. Just a sequence of fleeting, confused, partial interpretations of the raw sense impressions. The brain makes up stories and kids us that there is a consistency of narrative and character.
Emotions are the same, Chater says – not inherently different to all our other acts of ‘reasoning’, differing only in the interpretation we place on them. Emotion isn’t an opposite to reason, it’s just a different kind of reason. The book states some principles about how the mind (not that it exists) work: attention is the process of interpreting sense impressions; our only conscious experience is the interpretation of sense impressions; the stream of consciousness is the succession of these thoughts. There’s no more to it. “We have all been the victims of a hoax, perpetrated on us by our own brains…. The mind is flat. The surface is all there is.”
All great fun but the perceptual shortcomings that make up a lot of the book are surely well known limitations? I recall these being covered at some length at an economics-psychology conference on attention in Toulouse in 2011. And others before – not least the great David Hume – emphasised the role of senory information in shaping throught and emotion. So the book left me with a so what feeling. I’m not devastated to learn that Freud was wrong and I have no hidden depths submergedin in the form of my unconscious.In fact, I quite like the idea of improvised, jazz minds.
As Chater says, each individual is shaped by a series of experiences and perceptions that shape them today just as a certain pattern of rock and rainfall shape a river bed. So I don’t know quite what message to take away., or not in terms of decision making Maybe it’s this: “As today’s thought or action is tomorrow’s precedent, we are, quite literally, reshaping and reinventing ourselves thought by thought.” If so, this isn’t entirely persuasive as part of today’s input into thought consists of records of the past – words or images, which to be sure pass through the crazy golf course of sense perceptions. But to the extent it is true, I don’t know whether it’s a disturbing or comforting message.