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Talking Point and Summary: Week 6

It has been a huge pleasure for me to have been part of this online course.
Hello everyone. This is the final round up of The Mind is Flat. Jess, what are the issues that seem most important for this final week? That’s a lot of pressure. So the focus for this week was building on the ideas we talked about last week, to do with human coordination and the ability to sort of coordinate flexibly and think about what we would do as a team. We talked about how that applies to how languages and cultures and societies evolve, so some really big issues. And one thing we talked about is that what seems particularly astonishing is that these things, complex languages, complex societies, very complex cultures, seem to evolve almost by accident.
It’s not like someone sat down and planned exactly what they were going to look like or designed them. So perhaps, could you say about how this is even possible and your perspective on how it’s possible for these incredibly complicated, rich things to evolve sort of accidentally. Yes. I think the key insight is that they must be evolving in a bottom-up way piece by piece. So, for example, if you try to communicate with somebody without having a common language, you start to rely on gestures, and if you start to rely on gestures for very long, you’ll start to use gestures in a stereotyped way.
So in a cake shop and trying to work out how to point and relate to particular cakes, then we’ll suddenly start to develop gestures which are a certain kind of pointing gesture, meaning those cakes and they kind of do some kind of gesture for size to say, it’s the big cake I want, not the small cake. And even in this very sort of simple case, we’ll start to develop conventions, because once you’ve got one sort of convention, you can make them bigger and more complicated and elaborate, so you can build one convention on top of another. And before you know it, you’re getting something which is starting to look a little bit like a language.
Now, when deaf children are put together without any ability to learn a signed language, one of the remarkable phenomenon observed is that they will spontaneously start to do something a bit what I’ve talked about but much, much more sophisticated. They will essentially self construct over a period of months and years a full-powered language which is just as rich as English, with enormous intact complexity, enormous– Which is incredible, really. It is truly staggering. So it’s possible to create systems of communication piece by piece, but in an incremental fashion, and I think that’s a metaphor really for what’s happening in society generally and culture generally, that no one really understands the whole process.
We’re all termites just building our little– pushing our little bit of soil about and signalling to the neighbouring termites. But together, collectively, we can build these enormously complicated structures. Yeah, which is really incredible. Can you explain a bit more, like, how this ties back to The Mind is Flat perspective that we introduced in the first week and that has been the theme running throughout since I– why is this idea relevant to The Mind is Flat, and I guess, how is it possible– kind of harking back to the last question– but that we do this given the flatness. Yes. Is it because– is it relevant to the coordination stuff?
Is it– I think there are a variety of connections, but I think the most important one is the realisation that most of the things we do, we do as part of a complex society, and an illusion that we can easily have when we’re having a sort of “mind is deep” moment is to think, all that complexity is coming from within my head. So if for example, you think about the meaning of a word, so if I think, what do I mean by the word, say, dog? I might think, well, I guess I know what the word dog means, and I think, well, that knowledge must come from in my head.
Now, when I think about it, I don’t know much about dogs. In fact, really very little. They bark and they’re furry, and we used to own one, and I have a few bits and scraps of information, but I know that this is, on the face of it, actually very, very minimal knowledge. And yet I seem to think that I mean the same thing as you and the same thing as everybody else by this word, but you also have very minimal knowledge, so what’s going on? Now, one perspective is to think, well, I guess there must be some mysterious concept in my head. The dog concept. I must have somehow learned this. I wonder what that’s all about.
Whereas, an alternative perspective is to say, no, no, it’s just scrappy all the way along. But when you put lots of people in a complicated society, and they have to communicate, all of those scrappy, partial bits of knowledge do coalesce together to let people use the word in a very coherent way. Maybe some of them are biologists, and they use it in a slightly different way, and so on. But the significance is the stable meaning of the word comes from being part of this big society. And the same thing applies to something like the cost of something, what seems like a reasonable price for something.
So it’s easy to naively think, well, here I am paying my 2 pounds for a cup of coffee. I guess it’s got 2 pounds worth of pleasure in it, but that’s not really right either. The reason it seems to be worth 2 pounds to me is that I live in a market in which there are lots of people buying coffee and lots of people selling coffee, and the equilibrium price, and that whole market seems to be about 2 pounds if you’re buying coffee in a cafe. And I’m conditioned– I’ve lived in this world for a long time, so I think that that’s a reasonable sort of price.
So what I think of as somehow emerging from me as an individual, is actually emerging from us as a society. Well, I think that’s actually a really nice point, again, kind of trying to emphasise that this idea that The Mind is Flat is not a negative view of people, but it’s kind of this idea that as individuals, solely on our own perhaps, we are quite– maybe we are quite simple in some ways as individuals.
And there’s not that much we could do if we were purely in isolation, but that a lot of the power of humans and our ability to do incredible things does come from this ability to collectively do things and coordinate and build incrementally on things that other people have done, which I think is a very nice perspective.
And I think a lot of people can appreciate that humanity’s greatest achievements depend on coordination, but perhaps the idea that the ability to communicate with language and understand language, at all, depends on very complex communication or the ability to have preferences and know how much to pay for things depends on other people a lot is perhaps a little bit more nuanced and sort of a more interesting point than what other people might have thought about. Yeah. I think that’s right.
So to finish with, I think the thought we have intuitively is that each person is a kind of isolated being who occasionally– with their own fully developed set of preferences and beliefs and meanings of words and their attitudes and the sense of who they are, and then these fully developed and complete individuals then start to interact with each other, and sort of trade the odd bit of language and hand goods to each other and so on. And I think that’s actually a rather demoralising picture. It’s a rather isolated picture of what human beings are. But, in fact, we’re not like that at all.
We are more like– we’re in a very complicated piece of improvisational theatre where we’re playing a role, but which role we play depends an awful lot on what other people’s roles are and what role they’re playing and maybe some of the general aspects of the physical environments and so on and so on. And we can create collectively some amazing, amazing patterns, amazing structures, amazing languages, which we couldn’t possibly have done on our own, and none of us really quite understands how we’re doing it and what’s going on.
In fact, social science would be easy if we could, because we wouldn’t have to try and fathom out the human psychology and sociology and anthropology, we’d just all know it, because we built this world. But, of course, the world we built is a mystery to us. It’s a phenomenal achievement, but given lots and lots of improvising, partial attempts to make the world better and to shape it is as we wish, we can create a successful and elaborate society. Now, of course, it’s not always successful, and it’s not always as we wish it to be, but the fact that we can create a complex functioning society at all is truly an astonishing achievement.
So this is the last wrap-up session for The Mind is Flat, and we really hope you’ve enjoyed the course. We’ve enjoyed putting it together. We hope you found it stimulating and exciting, and hopefully you have a sense of what we mean by the claim that the mind is flat but, more importantly, we hope that you found this an opportunity to think in a new and hopefully fresh and exciting way about how you work, how other people work, and how the society around you came to be.
It has been a huge pleasure for me to have been part of this online course. I hope I have been able to help you look at your own mind differently, take a different perspective on the people around you, and at least begin to wonder about some of the possible implications for society and politics.
You will, I am sure, have picked up something of the sense of controversy and excitement in the behavioural sciences. There are so many fascinating findings, exciting ideas, but, as one might suspect, the data and theories also contain their share of inconsistencies and puzzles. Psychology certainly is not physics!
The project of understanding our minds, our culture and our society is one of the most exciting adventures that we can engage in and, as human beings, we are inevitably struggling to understand ourselves, each other and the society we live in. ’The Mind is Flat’ does not, of course, give you all the answers; indeed, in psychology, there are very few universally agreed answers on just about anything. But I hope this course has provided an interesting and challenging perspective, and provides a useful stimulus for you to continue thinking about minds, language, society, and how to make the world better place (if we can quite decide what that means!).
In this video, I talk with Jess about the common themes of the sixth week. Jess has also summarised the week’s themes here.

Week 6 Experiment

In this week’s experiment we are going to look at your judgements of the art market, can you tell a masterpiece from a monstrosity?
Week 6 experiment
This experiment 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 experiment 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.

Talking Point

Before we close this final week we’d be really interested to know how you found the course, so please leave a comment or share some part of your experience so far in the discussion below:
  • What is a ‘good’ society?
  • Were your answers in the experiment, about the art you like, influenced by the rating of other people? Did you say you liked something, when you really didn’t, just because other people said they liked it?
  • Do you understand the concept of a ‘flat’ mind now?
Now we’ve finished, let’s go back to your answers for the question “on a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you now subscribe to the idea of a ‘flat’ mind?” What has been the change, in any direction, to your answers in either your understanding or appreciation of the idea or concept of a flat mind?

End of the Course

We hope that you have enjoyed this course and that it has helped to inform and stimulate your thinking about the concepts of human behaviour and decision making.
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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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