The Mind is Flat – we have no hidden depths

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

HumeYou probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths. The book could equally have been called “The Mind Is Shallow”, though potential readers might have found that more off-puttingly rude.

This is one of those books that is a superb exposition of scientific findings, from which the author proceeds to draw highly polemical and speculative inferences. There are beautiful discussions of how little we actually see around us: eye-tracking software can show us a page filled with Xs with one word positioned exactly where we are looking , and we have the experience of seeing a full page of text. We can’t even see two or more colours at once but switch between one at a time. In general, our richness of experience seems to be a construct.

Feelings are not much cop, either. Emotions are probably generated when we notice changes in our bodily state (this was William James’s insight in the 19th century), rather than bubbling up from some subconscious to teach us a lesson. Memory is a highly fallible re-creation rather than a retrieval of information, and political affiliations can be influenced by cognitive biases. People commonly report, meanwhile, that a solution to some puzzle pops into their head after they have stopped working on it and taken a walk or a shower. But Chater insists that there is never any “unconscious processing” working on some problem while we do something else. In his view, the brain can attend to only one thing at a time.

More here.