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Week 1 round-up

Please check back here on Monday afternoon of week 2 for the weekly round-up of the previous week.
So hello everyone. This is the first wrap up for The Mind is Flat MOOC. I hope you’re enjoying it so far. My name is Nick Chater and with me is - by Skype - is Jess Whittlestone. Hi all. I’m in Cornell, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York this week, soon to be back in normal mode in Warwick. So what we do in these wrap ups, is we talk about some issues that you’ve been raising on the discussion forum. So Jess has been going through those and picking out some of the salient concerns you have and issues raised. So over to Jess to ask me some challenging questions from you.
I’ll do my best to try and answer some of them, but of course, I’ll no doubt not pick up all of things you’re interested in. But we’ll see how it goes. So Jess, what’s been coming up this week? So to start with, perhaps not too challenging although maybe, I think it would be useful to just clarify some of the key terms and ideas that we’re talking about here. I think a lot of people have been commenting and saying what do you really mean by this? Or what you really mean by that? So to start with maybe you could just say a bit about the most obvious thing, which is just what you actually mean by minds.
What falls under this definition and what doesn’t? Does it include things like subconscious and memory? And couldn’t those be said to have depth perhaps. Yes, I think that is a very key question. So of course what the mind is, is itself something we can’t really take for granted in discussions like this. But what I’m trying to argue is that on the one hand we have our conscious experience, so the thoughts that run through our minds, the experience of the perceptual world. And we have the sense that in addition to that there’s a whole other universe of stuff which is a bit like that, of the same kind, but hidden.
So this would go back precisely to the question of memories and the subconscious. So you might think that the mental experiences we have are a kind of… a very tiny window into a big inner world which is of the same kind. There’s all that thinking stuff going on inside us, some of which we’re aware of - we can consciously remember - some of which we’re not. But it’s of the same type as conscious experience. And I would argue that’s not right. That’s the sort of mind is flat argument. So when we’re remembering something from this point of view, we’re drawing out and creating some experiences and thoughts and beliefs in the moments of remembering.
And the way those come out depends on the way in which we prodded the system, the way with which we’ve been asked to think about the memory. So it’s not as if there is a mind which consists of all sorts of thinking type things, thoughts as it were, floating around and we just hoick them out. Rather, there really is just a stream of consciousness. But when we have to remember something we create a particular mental experience in the moment. The key point being that the way in which we prod the system changes what we actually create. So you’re not denying that there is a thing which is the memory, but it’s that the memory isn’t kind of like a…
would you be saying that memories don’t exist when you’re not remembering them? Is that kind of accurate, there’s nothing but the present experience? Well, I think sort of that’s right. And certainly the key is suppose is that when you’re remembering something you’re recreating. So it’s a bit like if someone asks you to tell them, to tell you about what happened yesterday. Now it’s possible to tell a story about what happened yesterday to you. But that story wasn’t there before. So you’re drawing on traces that have been left in your brain by those experiences. If you’re asked several times, if you’re asked by different people in different ways at different times of the day, you’ll give different answers.
And there’s it’s obvious that we’re creating the story in the moment for the person who’s in front of us based on the things that happened to be crossing our minds. Now, the illusion I think, is thinking that memory is not always like that, so thinking that lots of our memories are just sitting there fully-formed. And it’s a sort of archaeological process to work out what memories are lurking in there. As I would say it’s always like making up a story. But not a baseless story, a story based on traces of experiences that you’ve really had. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.
So, I mean you’ve touched on this quite a bit, but maybe just to say a little bit more explicitly, the other thing that I think a lot of people feel needs clarifying is what exactly do you mean by the idea of the mind being flat versus being deep? I think flat and deep are words that people often use a lot different contexts and have a lot of different associations. So it might be good to just really clarify what would it mean for the mind to be deep and what is it that you’re denying and claiming by saying it’s flat. Yes. I tried to follow up on what I was saying. Yeah. Just now, I think this is a crucial point.
So the idea of mental depth in this context is the idea of the underlying our sort of superficial experience of thinking there are sort of hidden worlds of beliefs and desires and memories which are of the same kind as the thoughts we consciously experience. But they’re sort of hidden from us. So one way of visualising that, and I think this is a wrong view, but I think we often have this in our minds, is to think as well the external world - which is a sort of a rich complicated thing that’s sort of as it were, goes on forever in all directions - there’s an inner world.
And the whole idea of an inner world sort of embodies this, an inner world of thoughts and feelings, memories, and dreams. And that inner world is a bit like the outer world, we only see a tiny piece of it. And I think that’s a really misleading picture.
OK. Yeah. Yeah, thanks. So I guess the other thing I was going to ask you as well was just kind of distinguishing the idea of being flat versus deep from some other ideas that people might confuse a bit. So one thing that I think a lot of people automatically respond is to say well no, my mind isn’t flat because that seems like you’re saying I’m like simple or kind of basic. So but my impression anyway at least is that you’re not saying anything about simplicity or complexity. Actually, you would probably say the mind is incredibly complex. Is that right and could you just explain a bit about how being flat is different from being simple? Yes, absolutely.
So yes I don’t at all want The Mind is Flat to be viewed as a kind of negative or insulting perspective on humanity. Quite the opposite as you say. Because in practice, the ability to create an understanding of the situation around the source, the memories we are trying to draw out of ourselves is incredibly complicated. So if you try to build a computer system to perceive the world around you, or to tell a story, these are things that are way beyond technology. They’re amazingly complicated. It’s astonishing that we can do it. And the brain is working full time at this job. You’ve got a whole brain devoted not to churning lots of subconscious thoughts as I would see it.
You’ve got your whole brain is devoted to inventing a story about what’s happening to you now and what are you thinking about now. It’s a really hard thing to do. And we’re able to do that based on enormous amounts of knowledge and enormous amounts of information we’re taking in at once. But there with some limitations we might talk about in a moment. So no, I think the human brain is absolutely incredible, but it’s momentary and fleeting.
Yeah and so I guess just leading on from that a little bit as well, it seems like a lot of people’s impression of The Mind is Flat idea is that this is a very negative picture of humanity and people often have quite a lot of opposition to it because it feels like it’s saying oh well you’re not really like… you don’t have any depth as a person. You don’t really have a personality. Yes, it could be right. I could be viewed like that, I agree. So yeah, I mean do you think that it is a difficult or undesirable conclusion to accept? Have you found it hard to process the idea yourself? Or do you think there’s a misinterpretation there?
I think it’s a really positive idea actually because the worst case scenario for me would be to feel that there’s a hidden self with all kinds of unconscious beliefs and feelings who I don’t control, I’m not consciously aware of, but shapes my behaviour. Now from The Mind is Flat perspective, that’s not really right. Your behaviour is shaped by a past experiences. It’s shaped by the environment around you. But it’s not the case that says there’s this sort of hidden mysterious inner self who you’re somehow enslaved to. So you don’t have to worry about things like who am I really? What do I really want?
The person you think you are, or you think you want to be - that’s as valid as anything. Then you might be contradictory. So you might think I’m like this one moment. I’m like that another moment. There’s no true answer to what I’m really like. It’s sort of up to us to decide how to resolve those contradictions. So I think in a way it’s quite a liberating perspective. At least that’s the way I feel about it.
Yeah, that’s a really nice positive note in a way to end the first week on, which is, again, something you touched on, it’s like this idea that if they’re aren’t these hidden depths controlling us, perhaps we have more control over the people that we become, and the people that we want to be and the changes that we want to make and things like that. Yeah that seems like a really, really nice positive perspective. The only other thing we talked about briefly of course is the experiment. Yeah. So did you want to say a bit about how that went and we can just explore what it means? Yeah, absolutely.
So yeah, hopefully most of you had a go at the experiment that we did this week, which was about change blindness, which is this phenomenon where because it’s very difficult for us to focus our attention on more than one thing at a time, it’s very easy to end up missing sometimes quite large changes in various things and images and things going on around us, which can be quite surprising. So we had this little experiment, where you saw a picture and you had to notice… you had to look for change and notice when the change came about.
And we did find just looking at the results now, that there was quite a long delay in how long people took to see like really quite a small change, quite a big change I mean sorry. So most people took at least 25 to 30 seconds, about half a minute or more, with the top end being a couple of minutes to find these changes. And of course also in this situation, you’re being told to look for a change, which often you wouldn’t be in real life. So often, it might take even longer. Yeah, was there anything you want to say a bit about this experiment Nick and its larger implications and connections to The Mind is Flat?
The larger implications are I think in a way very simple. So we have this illusion that the world around us is in high definition. We can see all the colours. We have this enormously rich, rich world around us, so we think. And we think we’re simultaneously aware of all of it. And that’s an illusion, as these change blindness experiments show. If you’re not directly paying attention to something, it can change and you don’t notice. Now I think the implication for that in a wider context is that your perception of your own inner life, which I take to be largely an illusion, is very much like that. So if I say do you remember x or y.
As soon as I think about, I think well yes, I do. So I think oh, it was sort of there all along. But it’s just like the change blindness case. If you ask me a question, I’ll answer it. And I think the answer was always there. But as change blindness shows us, that even though I think that I can answer any question about the perceptual world around me, really I’m making up the answer at the time the questions being asked. I’m not actually aware simultaneously of all the different things in my perceptual environment and I’m not really aware of all things that I know.
In fact, I’m making up the answer the question, the questions about perceptual world, but also about by inner world at the time I’m being asked them. So I’d like people to have a sort of think about the degree to which the subjective experience of being this sort of whole, rich inner person is a bit like the subjective experience of having a whole, rich inner world around you. It’s actually a bit of an illusion. OK right. Yeah, that’s a really interesting analogy. So that’s us for this week. Obviously, we very much hope you enjoy next week. And we’ll be picking up on your discussions and feeding back then. So enjoy the next week of The Mind is Flat. Good bye.

We look at some of the most popular topics, and Nick and Jess discuss some of the most frequently asked questions from the previous week.

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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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