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How our minds work

The Mind is Flat

Over the next six weeks we’ll be thinking about how our minds work, in a fresh and unusual way.

Most of the time, we tend to think that our thoughts, feelings, and desires well up from within. They’re lurking there in a mysterious inner, mental world, and occasionally they burst through with surges of emotion, with things that we might say and perhaps might regret; just generally driving our behaviour from this inner, mental world.

I want to suggest a perspective which is different from that.

To be sure, we’re complex and mysterious beings, and each one of us is very different from the next. Human behaviour is very mysterious and a difficult-to-understand topic, but I suspect the complexity has a rather different origin. So rather than imagining that there’s this inner, hidden world, which we can only occasionally look inside (which occasionally bursts through and affects our behaviour), instead I want you to think about your mind as an improviser, to think that you really are creating or making up your mind as you’re going along. In particular situations, you interpret that situation in a specific way, and that interpretation isn’t hidden within you. It’s not an attitude necessarily, or a belief, or a desire that was always there all along; instead, I propose that you’re creating it in the moment. Of course you’re not creating it at random – you’re creating it in a way that fits with other things you’ve done and with other things you’ve said, that fits with your character.

In fact you’re a bit like the legal system. You have a great system of cases, which make the law, and every case is a new case – but nonetheless, it’s under a judge who makes the decision (and the jury too, perhaps) based on the specifics of that case. But, of course, they refer back to all those previous cases. Like the legal system you’re not making your mind up in a vacuum, you’re making up your mind to stay in character, to be the kind of person you want to be and normally are.

This is an unusual perspective, and I hope you enjoy exploring it with me.

I don’t want to take this as a dogmatic starting point. The aim is rather to get you to think in a new and fresh way about how you work and to discuss this with each other – to think about your own lives and to try and understand yourselves in a different way. Also, of course, we’ll be giving you evidence from experiments, some of which you will have a chance to take part in. We’ll also be talking to other academics who are interested in behaviour and to people who use human behaviour in practical contexts – people who are concerned with behaviour in business, government, and so on in the real world.

What do we mean by a ‘flat mind’?

It’s very important point to stress, that the flatness of the mind is very different from its complexity.

In particular we’ll see, as the course progresses, that an awful lot of our behaviour seems to be determined by precedent, by looking back and thinking, “well, what did I do in a situation like this when I came across it before?” or “what do other people do when they’re in situations like this?” We’re either copying ourselves or we’re copying other people, but not copying in a blind way. We’re copying often in a very clever way, very elaborately thinking through “well, if I did that then I suppose this situation is a bit like it, so if they’re analogous, I should do this in this situation”.

So it’s a bit like case law; the legal cases are decided in many aspects of the law by looking back at past cases. There aren’t actually any sort of written laws to refer to, but that doesn’t mean that case law is all over the place, and it doesn’t mean it’s simple. It is incredibly complicated because there are many different precedents to refer to.

I therefore want you to not fear that you’re under attack, as it were, as complex, sophisticated human beings. In fact, your own history as a person and the people that you interact with and the experiences you have make you who you are.


As we progress through the course we will explore examples and experiments which will help you understand the concept of the ‘flat mind’. By the end of the sixth week you will be able to appreciate these ideas I’ve already mentioned, and hopefully have a clearer perspective of your own mind.

This article is from the free online course:

The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

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