Nick Chater's The Mind is Flat - there is no true self

29 March 2018

  • New book from Nick Chater argues there is no 'inner self'
  • The Mind is Flat draws on research to show there is no subconscious
  • Chater presents evidence to reveal our personality is like a tradition
  • He shows all we are is a continuous "cycle of thoughts"

You know all that searching for your true inner self, the travelling to find the true 'you', the meditation to look inside, the books you’ve read, the articles and listicles you’ve Googled on six steps to discover you true self. Well, it was all a waste of time.

The very idea of a true self, buried deep in your subconscious is an illusion. So says Nick Chater in his new and potentially industry-destroying book The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind.

Psychoanalysts have spent many years listening to ‘clients’, trying to find the subconscious knot driving their behaviour. This book suggests it has been an expensive waste of everybody’s time. Or, rather, if therapy helps, it helps by reshaping our conscious mind, not untangling our unconscious.

For Chater, decades of research and experimenting on human decision-making, reasoning and behaviour, leads to the conclusion that the search for a true inner self is a “wild goose chase”.

“We should think of ourselves as like a tradition, like cookery, music, or law,” he says. “Each new thought or action is a creative variation on our past thoughts and actions; and, in turn, also shapes our future thoughts and actions.

“We can view our patterns of thought and behaviour as like learning to play the saxophone. It would be odd to wonder, before I have even picked up a saxophone, about the nature of my true inner saxophone style.

"Only as we play, and learn from others, do we each create our own style, but it wasn't hiding inside us all along! And, of course, if you had learned different pieces and played with different people, you would have created a completely different style - that is true of our personalities as well.

“Of course, there are also biological forces at work. My style in football might not involve explosive pace, simply because I am a slow runner - and that might partly be genetic. However, the main thing that is shaping my current behaviour is my past behaviour.

“The very idea of a hidden unconscious 'inner world' is a seductive illusion; and the Freudian idea that therapy should involve uncovering and resolving tensions in that unconscious realm is equally ill-founded.

“Nonetheless, therapy can be enormously valuable, but not because it is uncovering your subconscious. The most effective psychotherapy techniques really focus on forward-looking questions and how to create new patterns of behaviour and thinking.”

As the title suggests Professor Chater believes we are quite literally “making up” our minds moment by moment - we are all spectacularly creative improvisers.

“Our brain’s basic task is taking scraps of information and filling in the details,” says Professor Chater. “Consider vision, we see successive snapshots of the world through a remarkably narrow window, and our brain works out the rest.

Related course: Behavioural Science in Practice

"Indeed, we are such fluent improvisers that we don’t notice we are creating the perceptual world around us, as our eyes scan the environment. That sense that an entire rich, colourful and detailed world stands before us turns out to be wrong.

"Instead, as soon as I wonder about, for example the colour of a vase, my eyes flick across to look at it and reveal the answer. The whole process is so fluent that I have the illusion that the colour was pre-stored in my memory all along. Experiments show quite the opposite!

“That is a very good analogy for our powers of rationalisation. If you ask me what I did, I will give you a reason, and a reason for that reason, and so on; and I can do this so fluently I have the illusion the chain of reasons was pre-formed inside me.

"But the reasons are mere rationalisations, invented only when they are required, and not a moment before. In fact if you ask me the same question in a slightly different way I will probably give you a different answer.”

Professor Chater reveals an experiment offering people a boring, cheap holiday or an expensive exciting one in the sun produced widely different results simply because of the questions. Asked which one they would choose, most chose the exciting/expensive holiday: because it sounds exciting. But if asked which one they would reject the majority paradoxically now also pick the exciting/expensive: because it is expensive.

“Just by changing the question from choose or reject, people are ‘primed’ to think of a positive reason or a negative reason, and the expensive-exciting holiday has the strongest positive and negative reasons. So people can choose and reject the very same thing!” says Professor Chater. “Often our views are pretty ill-defined, and our choices can be nudged either way depending on how the question is asked."

Nudges have been discovered thanks to decades of research uncovering the biases and heuristics we naturally have. This led to Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman proposing the system one and two scheme for our brains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, with system one being the automatic, intuitive thinking and system two the slow deliberate analytical mode.

Listen to Nick Chater talk about The Mind is Flat on Radio 4's Start the Week

Professor Chater argues the two systems analogy is not always helpful, and prefers to see the mind as a single system, engaged in a continual ‘cycle of thought’; the sequence of steps composing conscious experience.

The cycle of thought is very slow and purely sequential: this means, roughly, that we can only think of one thing at a time. Each step in the cycle pieces together perceptual and remembered information into a new whole - whether recognising a word, a face, or solving a crossword clue. According to Professor Chater, conscious experience is actually very limited.

“We are only conscious of perceptual things like colours and shapes,” says Professor Chater. “We have this idea we are also conscious of our memories and thoughts, but I think that is a fundamental mistake. When we think about past memories, we are re-creating the perceptual experience.

“The key point is that all you ever have is this cycle of making sense of information, this cycle of thought, and every time you engage in that cycle you leave a trace, like a river that follows the contours of the landscape, but reshapes it, too.”

He may have ruined a lot of travel plans for those seeking to find themselves, but Professor Chater’s cycle of thoughts are certainly worth following.

Nick Chater is Professor of Behvavioural Science and teaches Behavioural Science for Managers on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He also lectures on Judgement and Decision Making on the MSc Finance and Principles of Cognition on the suite of MSc Business courses.

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