Skip main navigation

Talking Point and Summary: Week 1

I hope to have shaken up your assumptions about the reality of our ‘mental depths’ and started you thinking about the possible consequences.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first round-up session for The Mind is Flat. So we’ve run this course several times, and we find that many of the same issues arise in discussion. So what we thought we’d do is that we’d pick up some of the most popular issues, and Jess and I would talk through some of them and see if we can help clarify some of the things that you’ve been concerned about. So, Jess, what have people been thinking about for this first week?
I think one thing that it would be useful to discuss that does come up quite a lot is just clarifying a bit more your main thesis, and particularly the phrase “the mind is flat” and what exactly that means. Because I think, in some ways, it’s a bit dangerous because the word “flat” and the word “deep” have a lot of different connotations, and some of them not necessarily as positive as you might intend. So I think it might be useful to clarify a bit what you’re trying to say here and what you’re not trying to say here. Yes, yes.
So perhaps you could just start by giving a kind of very brief summary of what exactly you mean by the mind is flat. And then I can bring up some of the misconceptions that often arise. Yes, yes. So I think that’s a very good point. So it can sound– and it’s certainly not intended to sound– as if I’m wanting to imply that people are simple creatures. People are amazingly complicated creatures. One should say that the first lesson of psychology is just how spectacularly brilliant human beings are. There’s no artificial intelligence system. There’s no other non-human animal which can do anything like the extraordinary things we can do. So we shouldn’t be threatened on that front.
What we are, though, is we’re not storing a great fund of beliefs and desires and attitudes and reaching in and finding them. That’s a sort of– The deep mind view would be to say that inside my mind, I’ve got all these things, all these attitudes, beliefs, desires, and so on. And I hook them out when I have a particular problem to solve or a question to answer. Instead, what our smartness consists of, what makes us so clever, is our spectacular ability to improvise. So if you ask me a new question, put me in a new situation, I think, oh, how am I going to deal with this? And I deal with it.
And I have a huge fund of experience and ideas to bring to bear, but I’m creating my solution on the fly as I’m going along. So that’s the sense of flatness. It’s that you’re improvising your character rather than referring to some great sort of inner memory bank. And I suppose another related thought would be if you think about how you know about fictional characters, you know a lot about fictional characters and what they like, and what they don’t like. And you can guess lots of things about how they would react in different situations.
So a kind of example I’m fond of is that if you think would Sherlock Holmes prefer Bach to, I don’t know, Motorhead, you think, well it’s got to be Bach, because that’s the sort of person Sherlock Holmes is. But of course, we have no actual knowledge of this. It is not written down anywhere in Conan Doyle’s stories or any other depiction. But we can figure that out instantly. And I think the idea that we know a lot about the characters of fictional characters is telling us something because clearly, in their case, there is no memory bank of Sherlock Holmes to draw out his attitudes and beliefs from because he’s a fictional flat character.
And my attitude to other people is a bit like that. My attitude to myself is a bit like that when I’m thinking what do I believe, what do I think, and having to figure out, well, what would you expect given the person I am, just as I am for a fictional character. Yeah, so just to reflect some of that back a bit– I think my understanding is that the key points are, one, that we have this intuitive view that our minds contain these mental depths of kind of stable beliefs and desires and preferences. And when we make decisions, we draw on those depths, and we say, oh, what is that I prefer. And that’s how I choose.
And what you’re saying is we don’t necessarily have that. Perhaps we’re making our decisions more on the fly and less based on these depths. And then secondly, that perhaps the way we understand ourselves isn’t quite the way that we think, and the way that we interpret our behaviour might be more similar to that of fictional characters than we think. And I think that we’ll draw on some more of these issues later in the course. And then I think the other thing to emphasise is that this doesn’t mean that we’re not complex, as you said. And it doesn’t mean that we’re stupid. It just means that we’re perhaps slightly different than we think.
And I think that’s one of the issues that some of the things you’re saying, some of the implications, the idea that we make things up on the fly or that we don’t really know ourselves can seem quite negative. Right? That doesn’t sit very comfortably with some people. So I wonder whether you could just say a bit about whether you think The Mind is Flat picture paints a negative view of humans in some ways or not. Or whether you do you think it’s quite positive, and what people should take from that. I have a very positive view of it.
So I think in terms of sort of dispelling some of the things that we think about ourselves, a sort of natural assumption is to think there must be something I really believe or really want or there must be a real me I can discover. So often, it’s hard to know what you want or what you believe or who you really are. And the illusion is thinking, well, I sort of am someone, and I do have these beliefs, and I do have these real desires. I wonder what they are. How can I find them out. And I think that sort of idea that a voyage of self-discovery, for example, is genuine self-discovery. You’re in there. You’re just trying to find yourself.
I think that’s a really misleading picture. It’s much more a process of creation. So you can create a new set of beliefs. You can create some decisions and ideas and choices. And you can create a new self for yourself– only to a limited extent, because you are obviously, to a large extent, trying to be consistent and coherent with all the things you’ve done and said before. But that sense of the creativity of the process I think is really positive. Yeah, I think so, too. Definitely. Yeah.
So it means that we’re not trapped with a self we’re lumbered with or trapped with beliefs and desires that we just can’t avoid or motives that may be hidden to us but just drive us on anyway. I think we have much more power and control and creative ability to shape our lives as we wish to than one might imagine. Yeah, and I think there’s definitely still some room for understanding yourself better, insofar as you can better understand how you tend to react to different environments and better understand the patterns of behaviour that you fall into and things like that. So I think a lot of people find self-discovery very– I definitely do– find it very sort of satisfying and interesting.
But as you said, yeah, I think this idea that The Mind is Flat suggests that we have more power to create our personalities and our selves and our lives is a really nice, positive one, and probably a really good one for starting the course off with. And I think another thing that I would say for the beginning of the course is just– I don’t know if you’d agree with me here, but just encouraging people not to get too bogged down in figuring out exactly what “flat” means and exactly whether they agree with it. Just think a lot about the material and some of the things we present and how the ideas fit together.
But some people in the past, I think, got a bit distracted by that. And– it’s an overall thesis, and it’s an interesting idea, but hopefully, it will become clearer as the course progresses. That’s a very useful place to finish, Jess. Yes, I think that’s right. The best thing to do if you’re feeling mystified by precisely the meaning of the phrase, “the mind is flat,” is just let the course roll over you and see what you think by the end. And then hopefully, you’ll be clear of what the thesis is and hopefully more convinced that it’s true. But at least you’ll be engaged with the issues. Thank you very much, and see you next week.
I hope to have shaken up your assumptions about the reality of our ‘mental depth’ and started you thinking about the possible consequences.
In this video I talk with Jess about the common themes of this first week. Jess has also summarised the week’s themes here.

Week 1 Experiment

Now it is your turn to try out a psychological experiment!
Each week you are invited to take part in an online experiment that supports the course material and will help you consider the topics we have been discussing. Some of these experiments have featured in the BBC Radio 4 series, The Human Zoo, which I work on with journalist Michael Blastland. We designed these experiments to be fun and, we hope, informative. Each experiment illustrates something about how our minds work, but in addition, I’m hoping to give you a sense of how psychologists use experiments to uncover (sometimes very counterintuitive) aspects of the mind.
These experiments ran in 2013 and, now that the results have been processed, the website is no longer maintained, so may not be fully accessible or current and technical support is not available. Participants are encouraged to try the experiments in order to test this week’s theories in practice and see how their results compare with the overall findings. However, participation in the experiments is not essential to the learning outcomes of the course.
You can do the experiments in any order, all at once, or as the weeks of the course unfold. However, completing them week-by-week will help you understand the experiments in the context of the week’s material.
This week we are going to look at change blindness, see how quickly you can spot the changes!
Week 1 experiment

Talking Point

Before we move to Week 2 we’d be really interested to know how you’re finding the course, so please leave a comment or share some part of your experience so far. Think about different elements and resources you’ve used this week and what kind of impact they had on your perception or expectations of a ‘flat mind’, such as:
  • Did the experiments challenge your own perception of change blindness? Have you done something like this before?
  • Did Rory Sutherland challenge or reinforce your belief about how the commercial world looks when viewed through the lens of human behaviour?
  • Is there hidden mental depth, or is the mind an improviser?
  • What do you understand by the term a ‘flat’ mind?
On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is a ‘believer’ and 1 is not) how much do you subscribe to the idea of a ‘flat’ mind? We’ll come back and ask you this again as we progress through the course – it’ll be interesting to make a note of your answer and see, at the end of the course, whether you’ve changed your mind, and why.
Don’t forget to contribute to the discussion by reviewing comments made by other learners, making sure you provide constructive feedback and commentary. You can also ‘like’ comments or follow other learners throughout the course.

Next Week

Next week we will turn to a specific and crucial topic: how we judge the properties of the world around us (height, weight, brightness) and our own experiences (e.g. pleasure/pain). The strange and unstable way in which we make such judgements will turn out to have surprisingly far-reaching ramifications.
This article is from the free online

The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

  • 30% off Futurelearn Unlimited!