Book Review: The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

Book Review: The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

Forget all about the Freudian id, superego and ego vying for your present attention. And forget about Jungian archetypes and stuff randomly bubbling up to the surface of your consciousness. According to Behavioural Psychologist Nick Chater – this doesn’t exist.

Instead, what we all have is a flat mind. Or a mind that’s incredibly adept at improvisation and filling in the gaps to build up constantly evolving reconstructions, based on sensations.  

Look under the hood into our minds and there’s nothing underneath of this – only perceptions and sensations that are comprehended through our rapid-fire neurons that consecutively, one after the other, build a constantly evolving story of who we are, from moment to moment.

This book could have therefore been called The Mind is Shallow or the Mind is Empty – but that would have probably made it seem too confronting for people.

Chater looks into a variety of different scientific studies to draw these conclusions. Including well-known mind tricks including the 12 dots optical illusion.

Book Review: The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

Feelings and emotions are not reliable either according to Chater. Our physiological state influences how we feel more than we know.

Also memory is highly fallible too and liable to being easily tricked into believing in things that we never imagined we would be convinced about.

In one study cited by Chater, people were told to vote according to their political beliefs. A few days later, they were read back the results – except they were the opposite of what they had claimed that they valued most. The majority of participants didn’t even realise that they had been fooled.  Chater’s contention is that we are more flexible in our core belief systems and values than we suppose.

The notion that we ‘work away on complex problems while our brains take a break or have a nap’ is challenged by Chater.

Instead Chater says, the brain iterates through a whole range of solutions one at a time, until it comes to an answer.

Chater tends towards an idea of our minds being constantly ‘in the moment’ with nothing existing below the surface except for the raw processing machinery of our neurological ‘back-end’. As such, it’s easy to draw parallels to Buddhism, mindfulness, Zen and present moment awareness.

Book Review: The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

Although the spiritual aspect of this, the idea of mystical non-duality and oneness with the universe that is a part of Buddhism is beyond the scope of this book. That’s a shame, because the whole mystical and spiritual part of consciousness is the most interesting part, I would say.

Also the theories about how the mind is flat, shallow and locked in a constant vice of present moment awareness are well backed-up with scientific evidence. It’s just too ‘one-dimensional’ to really fully believe.

What about personality…that persists over time doesn’t it? What about heritable traits of mental illness or some people’s genetic predisposition to be a psychopath, and others to be kind? What about a million other things like how a song or a smell can transport you to a different moment in time? A lot of things aren’t neatly able to be explained by Chater’s theory.  

The writing though is potent, interesting and compelling in terms of how Chater pulls you along for the ride. I only having a passing interest in psychology and I have only a basic undergraduate understanding of it, yet I was still managed to read it to the end, which was a sign for me that it was a decent book. 4.5/5 for mind-expanding reading fodder for the (non-flat) mind.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

    1. Not that long…I think about 200 or so pages, not that hard to get through, I think you would like it Jeremy

      1. Right that’s fine. There’s another on human psychology called Behave- been looking to it but it’s a solid 7-800 pages. Gives me pause!!

      2. That sounds more intense, 700-800 words, but if it’s your cup of tea, might be worth it?

      3. Hey remember how I tried to find a book of Japanese death poems in Japan? Well I couldn’t but instead order the one book in English I could find on book depository. Arrived the other day!

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