Psychologist Nick Chater says that he has discovered that the human mind is exceedingly shallow — or even flat. This is not what most people want to hear about themselves, and has not been a very popular message on the YouTube or public speaking circuits. But it is clear that the “flat mind hypothesis” elicits some powerful principles out of the dense tangle of concepts that make up modern psychology of the mind.
The mental iceberg concept is a common way of viewing the mind, portraying a relatively shallow conscious mind supported by a vast and deep subconscious. But according to Chater, it is crucial to understand that the “stuff” that makes up the unconscious mind is of an entirely different nature than the material that constitutes the conscious mind. In the conscious, we have words and images, smells and emotions. But in the subconscious there is nothing that we would recognise as mental thoughts. Only foreign-looking raw material resides underneath, starkest strangers to our ken.
This Is What Buddhists Have Been Saying
For thousands of years, Buddhists have taught that the conscious mind is an ephemeral creation without real substance. Students were taught that human suffering originated and was unnecessarily sustained when the ephemera of the mind were taken too seriously, and treated as real when they were not.
Chater looks at the conscious mind in a similar manner — the mind is a great improviser, an ad hoc creator of content just good enough to convince us that what we think we see is real.
Not New, But Very Powerful All the Same
This idea has been percolating through psychological research and theory for several decades, although no one has quite known what to do with it. An example of “flat mind thinking” is that the conscious mind can only truly focus on one thing at a time. Of course there are examples of persons doing two things at once — for example dancing and holding a conversation at the same time. But that is only possible if the dancer is quite accomplished, and capable of dancing automatically without conscious oversight. The same thing happens when a musician plays an instrument such as piano or guitar, and sings at the same time. At least one of the activities must be turned over to automatic circuits of the brain in order to free up the conscious mind for the more interactive activity.
In his talk above (and in his book) Chater discusses how early artificial intelligence researchers butted their heads against faulty concepts of the human mind, making their early attempts to develop artificial general intelligence quite futile. Since then almost all AI development has been of the ultra-specialist type, such as chess playing or automation — tasks based upon machine learning rather than theories of mind.
Nick Chater teaches and does research at a business school, with much of his research dealing with the intersection of marketing with the human mind. Over the years as Chater zeroed in on the flatness of the mind — the incredible limitations of the mind — more applications of advanced marketing to human psychology became clear.
The flat mind is a powerful improvisation machine, creating a semi-plausible reality in real time as we go. Many parts of the brain must act in concert with one another or the entire production begins to fall apart. But as we discover the nature of the constraint propagation within this improvisation machine, we can develop better ways to keep it working properly — or to “repair it” when things swing out of kilter.
Freud’s Unflat Mind
In contrast to Chater’s “flat mind,” Freud’s unflat mind seems more elaborate. But looks can be deceiving. In Freud’s iceberg, the mental content of the deep iceberg is made up of elements that seem familiar to our conscious minds, as if things that had been conscious had been “stuffed down” somehow into the deeper levels. As a common sense “folk psychology,” that sounds reasonable. But in reality such an approach merely postpones the day of reckoning, when spades must be called spades, and the substance of the thing must be made manifest.
The same criticism can of course be leveled against the “flat mind” theory, since for now it seems to be cramming more and more responsibility for consciousness into a two-dimensional improvisation machine that is poorly defined — to say the least. But sometimes before one can go to work creating full descriptions of what a thing is, he must first clarify in no uncertain terms what a thing is not. And that is what Chater has done in his book “The Mind is Flat.”
For students of Buddhism, the book only needs to be a welcome confirmation by modern psychological science of ancient religious teachings. But for students of psychology and artificial intelligence, the book can only be an opening salvo of sorts. The mechanisms of this improvisation machine have to be brought to light so that they can be tested and tweaked.
Understanding how we generate our worlds can help us to more quickly find our places in the cosmos, and more rapidly regain our equilibria when things go askew. But this understanding can also be misused by powerful forces that wish to regiment us for their own ends, or even to cast us aside in the waste bin.
As humans learn to tweak their minds, genes, social worlds, and physical environments, a number of possible futures open up to humanity as a whole. Works of fiction such as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World offer contrasting but equally dystopic visions of possible futures. Nonfiction books such as the books of Ray Kurzweil, Harari’s Homo Deus or Drexler’s Engines of Creation present possible disruptive innovations that offer yet more possiblities.
At the center of all these visions is the human mind, and the choices that it makes. If the masses succumb to collectivist utopianism as offered by political leaders, then a dystopian future is assured. But if humans learn to individually plot their own courses based upon a strong knowledge of their own strengths, weaknesses, and proclivities, then the human future may yet be an open-ended one, abundant and expansive.
For the most part, children are not taught how to find themselves in order to find their ways through a rapidly changing landscape. You can do better, for your own children. Or if you are the only child you have, you can do better for yourself. It is never too late to have a Dangerous Childhood © .