The Mind is Flat

Nick Chater is the author of The Mind is Flat–the Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019. He is a professor of behavioral science at the Warwick Business School. The book is two parts and overall it is as ambitious as it is simple. The first part is the most convincing. He shows how misguided we are on our perceptions, emotions, and decision making.   Our vision seems to provide us with a full fledged model of our environment, when we really only can focus on a very small area with our furtive eye movements providing the impression of a complete detailed picture. Our emotions do not well up from deep inside, but are the results of in-the-moment interpretations based on the situation we are in, and highly ambiguous evidence from our own bodily state. Chater sees our beliefs, desires, and hopes as just as much inventions as our favorite fictional characters. Introspection does not work, because there is nothing to look at. We are imaginative creatures with minds that pretty much do everything on the fly. We improvise so our decision making is inconsistent as are our preferences.

I note that a review of this book: “Out with folk psychology, in with what?” written by Susan Blackmore and Emily Troscianko made me much more comfortable with my impressions of The Mind is Flat. (The review is available at

No Homunculus (little man) Inside Us

Chater’s ideas that there is no kernel in each human that defines that person and no conflicting selves seem fair enough. I would also say that our minds are much flatter than we might believe. Chater  gives credence to connectionist models which involve vast numbers of cooperating neurons. Brunswik’s lens model, which I believe leads directly into the parallel constraint satisfaction model, does not require so-called depth. The default network, which Chater disavows, seems to be about reducing dissonance and trying to create consistency. Our minds are thus willing to change the weights on a particular cue from negative to positive if that means it provides the solution with the least dissonance. (See post Bidirectional Reasoning.)

Chater writes on page 8:

There is no inner world. Our flow of momentary conscious experience is not the sparkling surface of a great sea of inner thought–it is all there is….Our brain is an improviser:  it creates new momentary thoughts and experiences by drawing not on a hidden inner world of knowledge, beliefs and motives, but on memory traces of previous momentary thoughts and experiences…But I have another for focusing on perception, namely that the whole of thought, whether chess-playing, abstract mathematical reasoning, or artistic and literary creation, is really no more than an extension of perception.

Andy Clark (See post the Prediction Machine) might agree with this on some level with his idea that we are constantly trying to reduce the error between our predictions and our perception. I do not think Clark would agree that there is no inner world.

On page 111, Chater says:

So the left-hemisphere ‘interpreter’ invents ‘stories’ to explain the right hemisphere’s choices – and does so naturally and fluently….perhaps we should consider another possibility entirely:  that our justifications for our choices are ‘cooked up’, in retrospect, by the ever inventive left hemisphere interpreter.

This is certainly not a new or original idea. The example of the elephant and his rider is illustrative. (See post Justifying our Decisions: Great for Plausible Deniability, not so Great for Medical Diagnosis)


 We Can Only Do One Thing at a Time

The second part of the book is problematic. Chater asserts that conscious thought is all we have. There can be no background processing  or unconscious thoughts. Chater believes that our neurons are so slow that cooperation through connections is the secret to our abilities and that it would be impossible to process more than one thing at a time. Chater’s insistence that there cannot be two thoughts at once or even that an unconscious system exists does not convince me. Clearly there is a unconscious system for maintaining our blood pressure or telling us to breathe.  Admittedly, many of these are operating the most rudimentary parts of the brain, but Robin Hogarth gives a convincing example from page 141 of Educating Intuition:

When walking down a street, people have little difficulty making adjustments to their course in order to avoid objects or other pedestrians. Furthermore, these adjustments are effected without effort, that is, intuitively. In this case, the subconscious self is wise in that it recognizes similarities with previous experiences and automatically enacts the appropriate algorithms to reach the desired ends. (The routines used are also well practiced.)  In addition, the conscious self–in the neocortex–can decide to override the unconscious when it wants.

Chater goes to some extremes in making his arguments and sometimes authors do that when they write books or the book will not be noticed. If you had a conversation with him, it might seem quite different. On page 165, Chater writes:  “Unconscious problem solving and unconscious thought of all kinds, is a myth.” The title extension: “the Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain” seems to be something of a hedge that there could be unconscious thought, but not improvising unconscious thought.

On page 163, Chater writes:

But solving difficult problems, whether mathematical, musical or of any other kind, is the very antithesis of a routine, specialized problem with a dedicated brain network: on the contrary, thinking about such problems will need to engage most of the brain. So the idea that profound unconscious thought can be ‘running in the background’ as we go about our everyday lives is fanciful indeed.

Leonard Mlodinow (See Post Elastic.) suggests that our most profound unconscious thoughts may come to the surface when we are engaged in our most everyday scripted activities. Speaking for myself, I should note that I likely have never had a “profound” thought.

Chater has a chapter entitled: “Precedents not Principles”. He seems to credit memories for chess masters abilities. It seems to me that memories evolve into heuristics which are maybe halfway between precedents and principles. Chater undermines any importance of the mind being flat when he says this:

Perhaps expertise in any domain, however remarkable, is not based on superior mental calculating power, but on richer and deeper experience….We layer each momentary thought on top of past momentary thoughts, tracing an ever richer web of connections across our mental surface.

I certainly agree with his concept of expertise, but his “richer and deeper” and layering do not fit with his “mental surface”.





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