This is a very interesting and challenging book, not very easy to read but definitely worth it. Nick Chater, a leading behavioural scientist, presents a radical reassessment of how the mind works and argues the idea of a deep inner life is an illusion. 

His basic argument that there are no ‘hidden depths’ to our minds it is controversial and for myself it is something I am not taking from this book. Nevertheless, there are beautiful discussions of how little we actually see around us and how, in general, our richness of experience seems to be a construct.

Chater starts by examining visual perception, and this is my favourite part of the book. Our brain is not simultaneously grasping a whole, but is rather piecing together a stream of information. Yet we are fooled into believing we are having a rich sensory experience. We don’t actually see a broad, rich multi-coloured world. The sense that we do is a hoax.

  1. For instance, we can only encode one colour or shape or object at a time. The idea we are looking at a rich coloured world, taking in all of the colours and shapes at one, is also an illusion.

2. Consider our sense of colour vision. The sensitivity of colour vision falls rapidly outside of the fovea, the area of the retina responsible for our sharp central vision. The rod cells that capture most of our visual field only able to capture light and dark. This means that outside of a few degrees of where you are looking, you are effectively colour blind. Despite this, we feel that our entire visual world is coloured. That is an illusion.

3.That limited vision is highlighted in experiments using gaze-contingent eye-tracking. In one experiment, participants are asked to read lines of text. Rather than showing the full text, the computer only displayed a window of text where the experimental participants were looking, with all letters outside of that window replaced by blocks of ‘x’s. When someone is reading this text, they feel they are looking at a page or screen full of text. How small can the window of text be before this illusion is shattered? It turns out, the window can be shrunk to around 10 to 15 characters (centred slight right of the fixation point) without the reader sensing anything is amiss. This is despite the page being almost completely covered in ‘x’s. The sense that they are looking at a full page of text is an illusion, as most of the text isn’t there.

gaze-contingent eye-tracking

How many black dots can you see? As you search, the dots continually blink in and out of existence. This illusion is from the book The Mind Is Flat by Nick Charter and it was created by French biologist and vision scientist Jacques Ninio.

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