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The mind is flat

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11th-Dec-2018       
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Nick Chater Ph.D. :
We know characters in fiction as well as we know many, and perhaps most, of the people around us. Yet fictional characters are often sketched remarkably lightly. In the more than 800 pages of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, we learn almost nothing of the heroine's appearance: is she tall or short? blonde or brunette? And her psychological traits are equally thinly drawn. We have to decide for ourselves if she is any, some, or all, of: a loving mother, a selfish diva, a woman tormented by love or mere infatuation, a person obsessed with the esteem of Russian 'society,' or crushed by an oppressive system.
Yet Anna is a rich character for all that, not because she can be defined by a long list of traits, but because she is an actor in a rich and fascinating story - of love, ostracism, despair, and ultimately death. Anna has many interpretations; and fiction, more generally, is the source of endless debate and discussion about which interpretations make sense and which do not. But, of course, there is no "true" interpretation of fictional character, any more than there is a single true interpretation of a poem, a parable, or a painting.
Like characters in fiction, we also know the people around us by their words and actions, their parts in the stories of everyday life that unfold around us. And the interpretations we create of the real people are, just as for fictional characters, partial, open-ended, and the source of endless debate. Is X being selfish or standing up her rights? Is Y focused and ambitious, or unhealthily obsessive? Does Z really believe his own rhetoric or plagued by self-doubt?
Whether thinking about real, or fictional, characters we endlessly ask such questions. But can they ever have definitive answers? In the case of fictional characters, the answer is clear enough: if Tolstoy doesn't specify Anna's attitude to the institution of serfdom or her beliefs about Peter the Great then these are surely simply blank. Tolstoy could have filled in such detail but simply didn't; and no amount of scrutiny of his original notes and draft manuscripts is likely to help us; there is no truth beneath the text,  just the words themselves.
The characters of 'real' people are, I think, no different. What is my attitude to Russian serfdom? Give me a moment, and I'll start to tell you. Just as well as anyone else, I can begin to compose a viewpoint, an argument, a political stance - and we can all imagine how such an argument might go, covering topics such as injustice, oppression, lack of education, and general violations of human rights. But, of course, I could just as well be composing that 'speech' for Anna, or for you, or you could be composing it for me. The process would be almost entirely the same.
Seeing the process of formulating a viewpoint as act of creative composition raises the question of when the relevant attitudes and beliefs come into existence. In fiction, the answer seems clear: at the very point that the author formulates the viewpoint and commits it to paper. But perhaps the answer is no different if we are formulating viewpoints and arguments on our own account.
After all, each of us is at least as ambiguous and open-ended as any character in fiction. Our flow of words and actions, and their role in the wider 'story' of our lives, is a continuous stream of creation, interpretation and reinterpretation. Some of this flow of words, whether spoken aloud or merely imagined, aims to interpret the thoughts and actions of those around us; and some, of course, reflects back on our own thoughts and actions, to help us make sense of ourselves.
In our own case, it is tempting to imagine that when we ask ourselves what we think or feel, we are not formulating our thoughts in the moment---that we are instead reporting pre-formed thoughts from an inner mental 'library.' We imagine that we are, as it were, looking "within ourselves" to uncover our innermost beliefs, desires, motives and attitudes.
One reason to doubt this is the library of pre-formed thoughts would have to be very large---we can generate beliefs, attitudes and justification on anything! Another reason is that our explanations of the 'contents' of our own minds tend to be wildly inconsistent, and shaped by our immediate pre-occupations, environment and apparent random variation. Yet a further reason is that cognitive and social psychologists have created endless demonstrations of how our 'stories' about ourselves, and our actual behaviour, can actively modified by external influences under the control of the experimenter. (That is another, much longer, story. But, to pick just one example, note that we will often happily provide justification for choices we are told that we made---even if we actually made the opposite choice).
In short, I think we radically underestimate our own creative powers. We are not reporters of the contents of an inner mental world. We are, quite literally, improvised characters of our own creation.
(Nick Chater, Ph.D., is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School and the author of The Mind is Flat).

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