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The mind is flat

‘The mind is flat’ is a book by Neuroscientist Nick Chater. I haven’t read it yet but Chater gave an interesting interview. He said, for example, that “we cannot find ourselves, because there is no self to be found within us”, and that we invent stories about the world outside and within ourself and change narratives constantly as we go along, all based on a selective one-thing-at-a-time process of perception. Sounds familiar? The book seems to present some very interesting psychological and neuroscientific evidence, but I am no expert. Has anybody read it, perhaps?

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Can I ask, what is the metaphor that he’s meaning by calling the mind “flat”?

I recently saw an article on neuroscience that suggested that the brain operates with an eleven dimension geometry! Which probably has nothing to do with the “flat” mind, but it is fun:

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Experience can be made purposeful:

“The mind is not a blank slate. Even before contact is made at the senses, the factors of bodily, verbal, and mental fabrication have already gone out looking for that contact, shaping how it will be experienced…
Because in an untrained mind, these fabrications are influenced by ignorance, they lead to suffering and stress…
The main role of right mindfulness here is to provide a solid framework for observing the activity of fabrication. At the same time it remembers lessons drawn from right view in the past- both lessons learned from reading and listening to the Dhamma, as well as lessons learned from reading the results of your own actions- that can be used to shape this activity in a more skillful direction.” —Thanissaro

The mind is not flat, perceptions are the result of views formed over time:

"The distortions of the mind work on three levels of scale. First, distortions of perception (sañña-vipallasa) cause us to misperceive the information coming to us through the sense doors. We might mistake a rope by the path as a snake, for example. Normally such errors of vision are corrected by a more careful scrutiny, but sometimes these sensory mistakes are overlooked and remain.

Distortions of thought (citta-vipallasa) have to do with the next higher level of mental processing, when we find ourselves thinking about or pondering over things in our minds. The mind tends to elaborate upon perception with these thought patterns, and if our thoughts are based upon distortions of perception, then they too will be distorted.

Eventually such thought patterns can become habitual, and evolve into distortions of view (ditthi-vipallasa). We might become so convinced that there is a snake by the path that no amount of evidence to the contrary from our own eyes or reason, nor the advice of others, will shake our beliefs and assumptions. We are stuck in a mistaken view.

Furthermore, these three levels of distortion are cyclical — our perceptions are formed in the context of our views, which are strengthened by our thoughts, and all three work together to build the cognitive systems which make up our unique personality."—Olendzki

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He said, for example, that “we cannot find ourselves, because there is no self to be found within us”, and that we invent stories about the world outside and within ourself and change narratives constantly as we go along

I don’t necessarily disagree, but does he link this to neuroscience? Or is it his personal impressions?

Non-dimesional consciousness seems to be like a flat-screen where activities of sense consciousness make a 3-dimensional world in my experience.

This explains a bit more of what he means by flat. Basically he’s denying that there’s unconscious processes going on.

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I think he’s trying to prove that Freud was wrong with his theory about the unconscious mind.
I listened to a presentation of his where he says one constantly rationalizes actions and perceptions after the fact. He says that there is at any conscious moment a vast amount of parallel processing going on to make sense of the world, and no resource left for an unconscious mind. Again, I am not an expert and I haven’t read the science behind his claims. I have always believed from experience that if one is learning a new task like to play new piece on an instrument, that the mind is still processing your practice sessions sub-consciously after you have moved on doing other things. What I mean is the learning process continues even if I don’t sit at the instrument and consciously think about it.

Thank you for this. I agree, the best explanations of what the mind is doing still come from the Enlightened One. It might be possible that Chater’s research has found scientific evidence for the ‘distortions of thought’. But, perhaps he should have called his book ‘Thought is flat’.

Interesting that they make a reference to Hume. Ajahn Sona of Birken Monastery told once that David Hume might have heard about the view of non-self from a Jesuit priest in France who had travelled to the East. I don’t recall all the details but it is an interesting thought.

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According to the link shared by Javier, there seems to be little science in his input:

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.

And probably, if they examined a bit further the metaphysical assumptions underlying the “superb exposition of scientific findings” they would find no real science in the book from first to last. However, keeping it this way might help boost the sales of the book, which is legitimate considering that explaining how the mind works takes a lot our of a man :slightly_smiling_face:

Yes there is a paper about it that got rather popular online through some articles that were written on it.

The paper: Gopnik, Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism? Charles Francois Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network

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This sounds like the Buddhist conception of consciousness, where each sense has its own consciousness and they arise, are processed, then subside, one at a time.

“a vast amount of parallel processing going on to make sense of the world”

This means that memory is employed, and in that respect is similar to the operation of mindfulness except is not done under the guidance of right view. Memory is a function of perception and so inseparably bound up with consciousness:

"Feeling, perception, & consciousness are conjoined, friend, not disjoined. It is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them. For what one feels, that one perceives. What one perceives, that one cognizes. Therefore these qualities are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference among them.”—-MN 43

While his work may forward secular mindfulness, it doesn’t put it into the moral framework of right view and the arising of the hindrances, or the operation of papanca (mental proliferation) in the untrained mind.

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