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The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  326 ratings  ·  54 reviews
A radical reinterpretation of how your mind works - and why it could change your life

'An astonishing achievement. Nick Chater has blown my mind' Tim Harford

'A total assault on all lingering psychiatric and psychoanalytic notions of mental depths ... Light the touchpaper and stand well back' New Scientist

We all like to think we have a hidden inner life. Most of us assume t
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published March 29th 2018 by Allen Lane
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Alla Vovk
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Good for: rethinking perception if you know little about it

After finishing this book I had an impression that I am living a life of a fictional character in a fictional world. My body is nothing else but a signal processing system, striving cycle by cycle to impose meaning of sensory input. The meaningful interpretations are concsious-yielding a world of patterns, object, colours, voices, world, letters, faces, and more. But this was not new to me. Much of his book echoes with the "no-self" view
Laura Spira
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was ok
Tim Harford raved about this book so I had high expectations but I was disappointed.

For a start it's not very well written and rather repetitive (and poorly copy-edited with a clutch of typos). I found the idea that my mind has no depth, and that my brain is constantly hoaxing me that it does, rather disturbing to start with but as I didn't find the argument entirely convincing my initial epistemological insecurity disappeared.

Chater has amassed a great deal of authoritative looking scientific
Douglas Greenshields
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
This might transpire to be a successful application letter to give TED talks, but it's ultimately disappointingly vapid. It isn't so much that the assertions here, so far as they go, are incorrect - but the writing is boring in the same way atheistic treatises are boring. Everything is "remarkable", everything "turns out" to be the case as a result of the extrapolation of hand-picked studies. There are so many omissions to the story painted - for one, the writer seems to imagine a homogenous hum ...more
Mar 27, 2019 added it
A book with a stupid premise. Of course the brain is a complex information processing system which is governed by certain transparent principles, and generates our thoughts and perceptions on the fly. The fact that we do not experience its workings transparently points to the fact that we 1. do not have direct control of our mind 2. are subject to influences deep within our brains which are not necessarily subject to change.

Of course there is a self that we generate in behavioural context, espe
Emmy Gregory
Jun 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting message. Interesting science. Annoyed by how many times each point was repeated though.
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Chater is is a Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School and Scientist-in-residence of the BBC The Human Zoo. He makes an outrageous claim: rather than having conscious and unconscious thoughts, our mind is Flat. Our brain constantly interprets sensory perception, trying to make sense of it with past precedence stored inside, to produce a narrative.

This is an astounding claim, considering that from Freud onwards we have been taught that we have an inner self. Kahneman wrote a
Chris Aylott
Jul 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019-reads
Smart pop psychology that isn't as sensationalist as it sounds. Chater explores the experimental evidence that we don't actually have anything like an unconscious mind. His take is that our conscious thought is the output of a biological computer that frantically shifts between different patterns many times per second, matching them up to build up a seemingly coherent understanding of the world around us.

Supposedly, this idea is a hard sell that requires serious debunking of traditional theories
The mind is flat an intriguing thesis, that our minds are constant improvisers that have no underlying depth to them - no thought but the stream of consciousness. But it is let down by a blunt argument that does not consider with any seriousness potential objections except to dismiss the preexisting views as nothing more than outdated (pre-scientifix) intuitions or mysticism.

Chat makes a leap from the shallow imagery of imagination and dreams, to ruling out beliefs, desires and motives using th
Sarah Wilson
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was ok
The illusion is .. that this book has any depth. To be fair, though, if you haven't read much (any) psychology this would be a good way to get introduced into a truly fascinating subject - the human mind. This is not a text book but the author does take the reader through a series of fairly well-known texts to support his argument. However, if you've read "Thinking, Fast and Slow" you probably won't get much new out of it. I was recommended the book by an economist that had rated it very highly. ...more
Chen Ann Siew
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
Couldn’t bring myself to finish this book, but marked it as read nevertheless to remind myself not to pick this up again. Arguments don’t make sense, eg first chapter on how physics of falling coffee, sugar and ball bearings can’t be explained. And also, citing the lack of consistency in human preferences to support his argument that the brain has no depth (and hence we have no settled beliefs), when these consistencies are often a result of human biases and heuristics.
Apr 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is an important and original treatment on the mind. Okay, much has been written on the mind, and there are plenty of topics covered in this book that have been covered elsewhere, for instance Barrett's How Emotions Are Made (another excellent work), which is a nice complement to this book.

Chater's overarching theme is that there is not as much (or perhaps any) depth or meaning behind much of what we do than we tend to think. We are remarkably good at making up stories and fooling ourselves
Paul LaFontaine
Sep 14, 2019 rated it liked it
The author asserts that our intuitive sense that we have a submerged consciousness that mirrors our waking conscious mind is wrong. What we have is a collaborative computing system that lies below consciousness comprised of snippets of interpretation that can be drawn upon to interpret the current sense experience in an open-ended, complex world. In our waking consciousness, the mind makes it up as it goes along and there are not principles or an "inner child" upon which we rely for our decision ...more
Teo 2050


Chater N (2018) (07:26) Mind Is Flat, The - The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind

Prologue: Literary Depth, Mental Shallows

Part I: The Illusion of Mental Depth

01. The Power of Invention
• artificial intelligence and the ‘inner oracle’
• the illusion of explanatory depth
• true believers in the inner oracle
• psychology: art or science?

02. The Feeling of Reality
• from words to pictures
• the sparseness of sensory experience

03. Anatomy of a Hoax
• piecing toget
Daniil Lanovyi
May 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Blunt. Declarative. A statement of a book. Much needed statement. Most importantly because that book touches and crashes the conviction of some that our beliefs are stable, persistent, even unchangeable. That extremely harmful myth should be long abolished. A mind is the most flexible concept that lives in a state of continuous change.

Especially in a modern world, with the ever-increasing pace of progress, we should remind ourselves often about the flexibility, a real superpower of our minds. B
Apr 23, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2019
This book is terribly written.
The author rambles on endlessly and, as other reviews mentions, this is badly edited copy.

The whole foundation the book is built on seems unclear, and the author repeatedly contradicts his own statements, as well as cherry picking data to validate his position.

He repeats himself many times without coming to any conclusions.
Incredibly Interesting subject.
Awful book.

Steer well clear.
Alec Newman
Aug 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is about how the way our cognition and perception actually work is much different than common sense has led us to believe.

How we tend to think of our perception and cognition: we can see and appreciate our entire visual field at once, in color, in relative detail; we can think in terms of abstract concepts; we can be aware of multiple things at once, and multitask; we can introspect how we arrived at an answer, or the motivations and belief systems behind our actions; we can imagine th
Vilgot Huhn
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book. Broadly I buy the main argument: that mental depth mostly an illusion. Consciousness is not a stream, it's a series of frames. We don't have any beliefs or values that are more real, more true, more "deep down". The tip of the iceberg and the submerged iceberg are made of a completely different material. Sure.

While I found the book well researched and mostly well-argued (aside from the chapter of emotion which I felt didn't give the questions raised the attention they
Aug 27, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks, apple-books
Save quite a bit of time by watching the Google as most of the book repeats the content presented in the book. However the book switched the burden of proof for the true self.

The biggest achievement of the book is moving the burden proof. I have been indoctrinated with the classic psychology models such, self actualization with the hierarchy of needs and following passions. These frameworks take the idea of true self as granted. Even in politics the goal of defining an inner truth is used by po
Max Stone
Sep 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Overall I very much enjoyed the book.

The basic theme is the subtitle: our brains are experts are stitching things together to create the illusion of more depth of knowledge than there really is, but really there isn't anything roiling beneath the surface; there is just the interpretations that we put on things.

I thought the chapters on perception were particularly strong; there were a lot of studies cited that I felt did a good job of conveying that one understands way less, and sees way less,
Simon Smith
Jul 16, 2019 rated it liked it
The author has a strong perspective but little fresh evidence. Rather, this is a collection of research studies narrated by the perspective that the brain is incapable of processing more than one thing a time, that it manufactures rather than presents “reality,” and that there is no unconscious mind influencing our lives—just responses in the moment that are influenced by prior ways we’ve responded to things.

None of this is really controversial. But the author overreaches and contradicts himself
May 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
When I could wander a bookstore, I always browsing through the books on how brains work. Especially around perception or how our kludgy pile of grey matter has numerous design faults. When I saw this book, the premise sounded intersting.

The whole point of the book is to point out that the brain may not have depth of personality, but one that is shallow at best. Essentially we are memories with a continuous feedback loop for thinking. The author uses numerous studies and thought experiments to ba
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great work. Despite my reading a lot of pop-neuro stuff recently this consistently raised new information and reframed other narratives in a compelling manner. I do worry that a little bit of the thesis is a touch semantic in how far its claims go (i.e. we do "have" beliefs, just maybe not aligned with the way they're traditionally thought about, and same with memories). But this book still did challenge my thinking on a number of subjects. Particularly the evidence on object-attention was power ...more
Matt Butler
Feb 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this. The writing was excellent and made complex ideas easy to follow. Where others in the field of cognitive science have described cognitive bias and explained the mechanisms involved, I haven't read anything that investigated the source of the bias in this detail. Our preferences are messy because they are invented in the moment, based on recent context, rather than being deep within us. It is impossible to identify our true preferences, because they don't exist.

I also liked
Derek Bridge
Dec 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book argues the mind is not an iceberg: there are no hidden depths. Any talk about the unconscious mind working away at problems in the background is false. Indeed, to a very great extent, the mind can only work on one thing at once. Consciousness, to the extent that it exists at all, is not a report of the workings of the mind (process); it is an interpretation of the results of the workings of the mind (outcome).

This is wholly convincing, especially to those of us who try to resist the cl
Jun 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Decent book of how the human mind is in some sense less complex than we commonly believe. It's not really able to multitask, not to focus on more than one thing at a time. Our internal model of the world is woefully incomplete. The only reason we believe it's so complete is because we can move our direction of attention quite quickly, including moving our eyes, such that we can answer most questions as if our model is more complete. Similarly we feel we can multitask because we can switch our at ...more
Adam Osth
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Cognitive science book with the thesis that many aspects of the mind, from emotion, memory, language, and even personality, and are not from any kind of "inner depths" but instead constructions in the moment. I've read some of Nick Chater's scientific articles so I'm not surprised to see a lot of compelling experimental results in favor of this idea, but was quite pleasantly surprised to see that he writes *beautifully*.

My only criticisms are the fact that it gets a bit redundant with how much h
Izhak Goldhaber
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
At first I was having trouble with the book. Seems to me the author was making big conclusory leaps about his thesis based on the workings of the eye and some psychological studies. I also found the language heavy (and verbose) in places, perhaps from the author's predilection to academic writing.

But then, I got to the second half and began to see (understand?) the merit of his thesis. I was catching on to his revolutionary ideas. By the time I finished, I was thoroughly impressed and thought h
Jonathan Geurts
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Chater uses readily available findings on the narrow focus of perception to arrive at the surprising conclusion that ideas are generated ad hoc and from context rather than from reference to prescriptive mental models. Essentially, our thought is an ever-emergent present state derived from pattern-based interpretation of internal and external sensory experiences. The book itself makes a lot more sense than the last two sentences and makes me doubt just about every explanation or justification fo ...more
Ian Pitchford
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Chater uses a variety fascinating studies from the scientific literature to come to strikingly counterintuitive conclusions about the nature of the human mind. In short, “the problem is not that it is difficult to fathom our mental depths, but that there are no mental depths to fathom.” This conclusion that so much of what we imagine to be a reflection of our hidden depths is actually constructed on the fly is actually incredibly liberating.
Dixit Nagpal
May 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
its really nice way to relook at the most complex organ of your body and understand some illusions and thought pattern about conscious and subconscious mind. The illusions about sub con and how sometime we think that multi tasking is my game or not my game
this book will definitely let you reconsider the way u think u can handle multiple stuff at one shot , literally u r making ur brain switch multiple times.
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Nick Chater is professor of behavioral science at the Warwick Business School and cofounder of Decision Technology Ltd. He has contributed to more than two hundred articles and book chapters and is author, coauthor, or coeditor of fourteen books.

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“No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives’, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. It is not hard to plumb our mental depths because they are so deep and so murky, but because there are no mental depths to plumb.” 2 likes
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