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Is mental depth an illusion?

Professor Nick Chater challenges our intuitions about how the mind works.
Hello, and welcome to the Mind is Flat. In the next six weeks, I’ll be trying to challenge you about how your mind works to get you thinking differently about how you and others behave. Now, of course, we have strong intuitions about how our mind works. We have minds, and we have lots of thoughts about them. One set of intuitions is that the mind is a pretty transparent thing. If I know anything at all, I know my own mind. So we have the thought in that line of attack that minds are fairly evident to us. If you ask me why I did something or why I said something, I can tell you. And indeed, I can tell you.
I’ll give you an answer all right. So a simple perspective would be minds are something that we can simply look inside, peer into, and report their contents. But beneath that thought, of course, many of us have the sense that there are aspects of our behaviour, aspects of the things we say which we don’t fully understand. And a natural way to account for that is to say, aha, well, there are also hidden aspects of my mind, mysterious subterranean forces, perhaps beliefs or desires or values that I’m not fully aware of, that I might need the full power of a brain scanning or psychotherapy or clever psychological experiments to uncover what they are.
You might have the idea that your mind has lots of hidden mysterious recesses. Now, I want to give you a picture of the mind which is very different from both the intuitive, everyday picture and the sense that there’s mysterious forces lurking beneath. Instead, I want you to think of your mind as an improviser, as your task in getting through your daily life is figuring out what to do and what to say in the moment and you do that by thinking about things you’ve said and done in the past to try and stay in character.
So what you’re doing in trying to make sense of your life is trying to create a story, a story which may be a story of individual actions in the moment. It might be a story of your day, a story of your purpose on the Earth. This story is going to have many different scales and types and can overlap. But those stories about yourself are fundamentally inventions. And those inventions are what guides your behaviour. And those inventions are not stable. They’re created continually in the moment. I would suggest that rather than having hidden depths, the mind is, in fact, flat. Now, let me give you an analogy. Then I’ll give you an example. The analogy is the depth of a rainbow.
If you see a rainbow, you think it has a depth. The end of the rainbow must touch ground at some point or other. But we all know from the fact that it’s never possible to find the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, that rainbows don’t really have ends. They don’t really have depth. There’s no actual point where the rainbow touches the earth and the pot of gold can be unearthed. Now, why is this? It turns out that if you try and measure the depth of a rainbow, it’s not just a tricky task. It’s not just if you had better measuring instruments, you could do it. The problem is that rainbows don’t have depths at all.
What do I mean? Well, suppose you have people stationed all over the country. And it’s a very rainy but also very sunny day. There are rainbows everywhere. Each of us can see a rainbow in different parts of the country. I report the location of my rainbow. I can’t see its depth directly. But if I radio over to you and you radio over to somebody else, maybe if we all know the direction of the rainbow, we all take bearing on that rainbow, surely we can figure out where it really touches the ground, what its depth really is. So imagine all over the country people are taking bearings on the rainbow.
And we plot them on a map and try to figure out where the rainbow really is. This would work brilliantly if the rainbow were a physical object like a rocket. A rocket takes off. We all take bearings on it from different parts of the country. We put the bearings on a map, and they all intersect at the place where the rocket took off– brilliant. The trouble is with a rainbow, when I plot those bearings, I’ll find that they do not intersect. In fact, they all go in the same direction, essentially opposite the sun. So you’ll find that we all think we know where the rainbow is, but in fact, the rainbow has no depth at all.
If we try and triangulate, we try and figure out from our observations where the end of the rainbow is, it has no end. Of course, the reason is, we’re all actually seeing different rainbows. The rainbow each of us sees as a different rainbow reflects on different water droplets. And each of those tends to be more or less facing opposite to the sun. Now, the shocking thing is– I want to argue– that our minds are a bit like that, awfully like that. So if you ask yourself, what do I really believe, or how much risk do I really want to take, or how much do I value one thing or another, you might think, well, it’s hard to say.
But of course, if you ask me many times or did lots of measurements of my brain, or went to some other complicated trouble, you’d finally figure it out. You’d get converging, triangulating evidence, which would pin down what I really think. But my suggestion is, if your mind’s an improviser, if I ask you different questions in different ways, you get different answers. And they don’t join up. It’s just like seeing different rainbows. So the rainbows don’t have depth. And minds don’t have depth either, or so I’ll argue. You might think it’s a very strange idea. And indeed it is. But let me just give you one simple example.
Supposing I ask you a question by showing you a statement on a piece of card, and I say, is that statement true or false? An example that’s been used in the past is the mysterious, is Orsono a town in Chile? I simply don’t know. I should look it up. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t, and you probably wouldn’t either off the top of your head. So I give you this statement. And I give you this statement either in really nice, clear, bold writing or in really rather fuzzy poor writing. Maybe I’ll write it scratchily in bad pen, and it’s a bit difficult to read. Here’s something interesting.
You’re much more likely to say, yes, it is true if it’s written nice and clearly and much more likely to say, no, it isn’t true if it’s written very scratchily and badly. Now, that’s interesting in itself, but the really interesting thing is that if I ask you, why do you believe that, you are not going to mention the writing. Nobody will mention the writing. You’ll think, oh, yes, I think I’ve heard of it, or maybe it’s a mining town or whatever if you’ve seen nice, clear writing. If you’ve seen very scratchy writing, you’ll think, yes, I’ve never heard of it, I don’t suppose there is such a town.
It sounds like it’s more likely to be somewhere else, perhaps in Japan. So you’ll give me a story about why you think this statement is true or false. Even though you don’t really know, you’re obviously making a supposition, an educated guess. But that story can’t be the right story, because we know what the story really is– or part of the story. And that’s the nature of the writing that the statement is actually presented in. So that’s a good example of the fact that the way you present to people, the way you present information and questions, can change their behaviour. That’s like looking at different rainbows in different places.
If I give you a different presentation of the information, you give me a different answer. You might think, yes, but surely, it must all join up, there must be some true answer. Do I really believe this statement is true or not? I would say no. You may not be too worried about that. You might think, well, this is just some obscure fact of geography. I’m sure I’m much more certain of really basic things, like my political opinions and my moral views and my beliefs about the everyday world. Well, we’ll see that those are also not as stable as you might think.

In this opening video I begin to challenge our intuitions about how the mind works; both the intuitive perspective that we know our own minds and why we do or say something; and the alternative view that we have hidden depths which can only be uncovered using brain scans or clever psychotherapy.

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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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