What We Know About the Human Mind

Is it time to challenge commonsense psychology?

Posted Jul 29, 2018

Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock

Our stream of consciousness is a motley mixture of pains, tastes, images, noises, conversations, and perhaps most notably, the fragmented musings of an inner voice, commenting on, describing, evaluating, and planning aspects of our lives.

Throughout most of human history, it seemed an obvious, and perhaps even necessary, truth that our thoughts must be part of conscious awareness, and that the mind is, inherently, a realm to which we have immediate introspective access. Indeed, my thoughts seem directly knowable just to me. It is my stream of consciousness through which they are flowing, after all.

Since Freud, though, a very different picture has come to dominate how we think about our minds, both in everyday life and academic psychology — and this picture has become widely influential, and indeed dominant, even outside the relatively limited academic circles in which Freud’s psychoanalytic theories are taken seriously.

According to this picture, our stream of consciousness is merely a glittering surface of thought. At any one moment, a particular thought, and perhaps one alone, may break into my stream of consciousness. Yet beneath lies a deep, and perhaps turbulent, reservoir of thoughts of all kinds, in which lie the deep currents — and perhaps even hidden monsters — that govern the mind.

Indeed, from this point of view, our minds are not merely a flow of immediate experience, but a huge repository of “hidden depths”: beliefs, attitudes, motives, suspicions, hopes, fears, and much more. Just as I can perceive the world through my senses, it seems natural to think that we can perceive this inner world by, as it were, by turning our attention inward — by applying a supposed faculty of introspection to scrutinize the contents of our minds.

Indeed, Freud would add (and many later psychologists with different variations of the same idea), we should be a little sceptical of our introspection, because our mental depths are murky and perhaps even actively distorted (some thoughts might be "repressed" for example). So we might need special techniques, ranging from hypnosis to word associations to dream analysis to behavioral experiments to brain scanning to pin down with any more certainty what we are really thinking below the level of conscious experience.

We might go further and wonder if the dilemmas and conflicts that can plague our conscious experience may have their origin in clashes deep in the unconscious world of thought. Perhaps our minds might even be organized into multiple inner agents (for example, the ego, id, and superego; or intuitive versus reflective selves; or some other division) — and these might battle for control.

What is wrong with this story? In my view, just about everything! And exploring why this story is both so compelling, yet so misleading, will be one of the topics I will focus on in this blog. I think that evidence from psychology and neuroscience contradicts these views at just about every turn. Among the claims I’d like to defend are:

  • The very idea of introspection into our mental depths is a hoax, perpetrated upon us by our own brains.
  • We are such fluent and compelling improvisers that we can invent an answer to almost any question about our beliefs, desires, motives, or memories, almost as soon as we have asked it. Yet our answers are no more than inventions, created just when the question is asked and not a moment before.
  • When we explain our words and actions, we are rationalizing: The explanations, beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears that they mention are part of the story we tell in retrospect.
  • Beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, and all the rest no more cause our action than do magic spells, possession by demons, or an excess of choleric.
  • Plumbing the inner depths of our minds is not difficult, because they are so vast or so murky, but because there is nothing to find.
  • The mind is flat! The glittering surface of conscious experience is all there is.

Don’t imagine that our intuitions about our stream of consciousness can be trusted either. Our intuitions about our conscious experience of the external world are mostly hopelessly and wildly incorrect!

One criticism that is often leveled at psychology, as an academic subject, is that it isn’t really a lot more than solid common sense. From a "mind is flat" perspective, this could not be further from the truth. I think the picture that is emerging from psychology, neuroscience, and allied disciplines is really quite astonishing, and utterly strange.

It is so far from common sense, indeed, that I have a feeling a lot of researchers are a little shy about admitting, perhaps even to themselves, just how explosive the implications of their results really are. Commonsense psychology is no closer to the truth about how our brains work than commonsense physics gets the right answers about curved space, black holes, and quantum entanglement.

Intrigued? I hope so. But, quite rightly, you need to see arguments, evidence, and intuitions. Watch out for later posts in this blog (or, for the full story, you can try The Mind is Flat, the book).


Chater, N. (2018). The Mind is Flat. London: Penguin Allen Lane and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.