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Nick Chater

The Mind Is Flat

The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind

Revised 30-03-2020
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
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.
Tempting though it is, the iceberg metaphor is misleading. An iceberg is ice both above and below the waterline, so the metaphor implies that there can be thoughts at the unconscious as well as the conscious level. But the research Chater quotes indicates that 'we are always conscious of our interpretation of sensory information, and we are never conscious of the processes by which these interpretations are created'. So this is where the metaphor breaks down. The area below the water is completely different from that above.

For C.G. Jung the unconscious was even vaster and more impressive than Freud believed. At its farther limit the individual unconscious merges with the boundless collective unconscious, which is like an ocean rather than a single iceberg. Here dwell the mysterious and enormously important archetypes, which, while never seen themselves, can radically shape events at the surface of consciousness and may appear in different guises in dreams. This, to my mind, is a more seductive image than that of Freud, and therefore even harder to give up. But although Jung, like Freud, claimed to be a scientist, his ideas seem closer to mysticism than to science.

It might be possibe to interpret the archetype concept more scientifically, as a name for the always unconscious brain processes that Chater refers to. But there is far more to Jungian psychology than this, and here I find myself drawm to an analogy which Chater makes to illustrate the power of the mind's creativity but also its shortcomings. This is with Mervyn Peake's astonishing literary creation, Gormenghast Castle: "one of the strangest settings for a work of fiction—vast, misshapen, ancient, crumbling and architecturally idiosyncratic".

Over the years, some committed and perhaps slightly obsessive readers have tried to piece together the geography of the castle from its scattered descriptions. Yet this appears to be an impossible task; the attempt to draw a map, or build a model of Gormenghast Castle leads to inconsistency and confusion—the description of great hallways and battlements, libraries and kitchens, networks of passages and vast, almost deserted wings can't be reconciled. They are as tangled and self-contradictory as the inhabitants of the castle itself.
Gormenghast is an impossible object, like those drawn by M.C. Escher. If this applies to how the creative mind works, as Chater believes, might not the same be said of the towering intellectual edifice that Jung constructed during his long life—a structure that has accumulated a much greater army of expositors and interpreters than Gprmenghast has. 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. (I write as one who has himself been greatly influenced by Jung in the past.)

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. I don't know if I agree with him, but I love books that make you think and question your own ideas, and this one certainly does that.

See also Strangers to Ourselves, by Timothy D. Wilson


%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, 2018

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