Your mind isn't deep at all. In fact, it's flat.

In his new book, Nick Chater writes that what we see is what we get.

The Mind is Flat, and Freud.
Photo: Getty Images/Shutterstock/Big Think

A box of crackers features the tagline, “Conscious eating.” An artistic subgroup embraces the Burning Man ethos: “Conscious music.” This self-declared genre arises from the same set that talks about techniques for “higher consciousness.” In every instance, the sentiment is obvious: my product is better than yours because there's something deeper going on over here.


Consciousness, from their perspective, is like a ladder descending into an unfathomable abyss. This depth can be penetrated, through meditation, through breathing exercises or austerities, through faith or sheer willpower or a combination of the two, or through, apparently, eating crackers. For some, higher consciousness is handed down at birth, from a past life, or bestowed by a teacher, as in the Indian idea of shaktipat. Whatever the method, everyday consciousness only scratches the surface. Something deeper exists, waiting to be mined by the steadfast observer.

A deep sigh of relief washed over me when reading that Nick Chater called the notion of higher consciousness “nonsense on stilts.” The British behavioral scientist doesn’t mince words in his new book, The Mind is Flat. While many believe consciousness to be a hidden mystery few can access, Chater's take on this evolutionary phenomenon is quite pedestrian. What you see is effectively what you get.

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. The inner, mental world, and the beliefs, motives, and fears it is supposed to contain is, itself, a work of the imagination.

This is not shocking if you consider consciousness in its most fundamental regard. By definition, consciousness is simply what you’re paying attention to at the moment, which can amount to no more than four or five things. You can refine from there: the goal of meditation, for example, is to focus on one thing—a mantra, a candle flame, your breathing, something basic and accessible. Whether you’re an expert meditator or chronic multitasker, the effects on consciousness are physiological, not mystical.

Yet that’s not how we feel, which is why Chater’s book is likely to rattle many mental cages. An emotion, he says, is an interpretation of a physiological change in your body. He’s not the first thinker to posit this; Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote an entire book on this topic. While this will not square well with those who claim they know something to be true because they feel it, Chater’s point should not be dismissed. Anecdotal interpretations have the habit of often being wrong.

We actually have a limited set of feelings. Think about the innumerable issues that cause a stomach to churn. Context matters, and in this sense, our brain contextualizes the physical sensations based on past experiences. Memory is fluid but based on prior events. Essentially, Chater states that we're just making it all up as we go along. 

We crave narrative and go to great lengths to fill in incomplete stories regardless of the validity of assumptions being made. This is why Chater thinks the role of psychotherapy is dated. He calls the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious “the astrology of psychology,” rather fitting given that Jung speculated that UFOs are psychic projections from our hidden collective drive. To Chater, comparing Jungian analysis to psychology is akin to relating astrology to astronomy. One exploits patterns of thought and behavior in an attempt to derive coherence, while the other relies on data to pinpoint exact locations and predictable patterns.

Chater believes psychotherapy feeds the illusion of a hidden depth and claims the industry is on the outs.

[Psychotherapy is] doomed by the fact that there is not a deep inner story that is hiding from you. Rather, you’ve got the first draft or a set of incoherent notes for a novel. You’ve got an incoherent muddle. And we’re all incoherent muddles to some degree. But when some of those incoherencies cause us problems, when we’re terrified of something we very much want to do, even something as narrow as a fear of spiders, these are conflicts in our thinking and reactions.

In his latest book, The Strange Order of Things, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes that feelings are “for” life regulation. They provide essential information to help us remain in homeostasis. If something is out of whack a feeling lets us know. Again, context matters. Our stomach gets jittery if we’ve eaten something rotten and when we’re courting a romantic partner. As Damasio states, feelings alert us to potential danger as well as potential opportunity. There is nothing metaphysical about the process.

But we perceive it to be other, as Chater writes. Instead of a perception refined by years of experiences, we come to feel that the deep well of the unconscious is simmering below the surface, like the famed kundalini energy at the base of the spine. Hyperventilate enough and you unleash its fury. Well, true, Chater might say—hyperventilate enough and your nervous system is certainly going to react in peculiar and dangerous ways.

Does this make psychotherapy useless? Not so fast, Chater concludes. First off, talking to another is proven medicine. Chater also says creativity is an important aspect of our humanity. Ingenious solutions can be worked out between a therapist and patient, provided it's understood as a metaphor. His contention seems to be assuming metaphor to represent reality as stated. Constructing new patterns of thought and behavior has therapeutic utility; uncovering unconscious motives or beliefs is not only counterproductive but dangerous:

The reason I think the unconscious is a dangerous metaphor is because it gives you the impression that mental things that are unconscious could be conscious. This whole idea of uncovering things from the unconscious and making them conscious has the presupposition that they are of the same type.

He compares this yearning for a hidden depth to Freud's iceberg: consciousness at the top, the real story under the surface, which Chater says is a mistaken analysis of how our brains actually work.

The things we’re conscious of—experiences, thoughts, fragments of conversation—are completely different in type from the things we’re unconscious of—all these mysterious brain processes, which lay down and retrieve memories, piece fragments of information together, and so on. The brain is doing lots of unconscious work—but it is not thought in any way we understand it.

What is unconscious can never be made conscious because the information is inaccessible by design. I’ll never be conscious of my liver detoxifying my blood, but if something goes wrong in that process I’ll certainly feel the result. If the unconscious could be made conscious, we’d never need a doctor to diagnose an illness; our body would tell us.

We’re just not as deep as we think, which is fine: we have plenty of work to do on the surface. Perhaps if we stop taking so many metaphors as reality, we’d get along much better, with ourselves and those around us. There’s plenty to see when we open our eyes. Closing them to seek a treasure causes us to miss the treasure right before us.

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Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
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  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
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Request a demo today!

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