Nick Chater’s Mind

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Nick Chater (@NickJChater) believes human thinking is more ‘make it up’ and less ‘look it up’. Certainly, there are automatic processes; breathing, digesting, etc. There are also learned process we engage simultaneously; running and talking.¹ But Chater makes the case  humans cannot use the same neural networks for more than one thing at a time. We think serially, “it’s much more one step at a time than you might think.”

Imagine an improvisation class. We know the story did not exist prior to the performance. “The suggestion I have for you is that that’s what you’re doing all the time….Except for the part, you’re playing is your own part.”

In Chater’s Talk at Google about his book, The Mind is Flat, he explains the 12 Black Dots, the Huang Pashler colored blocks and Kuleshov Effect. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates how the Kuleshov Effect  transforms a benign gentleman into a dirty old man. It’s about a minute, starting at 0:18

Most of life is like an automatic transmission in a new car, but Chater’s examples turn our mental Mustang into a jalopy, and we grind the gears to find balance.

Our bumpy brains normally operate smoothly because we have a lot of practice. In the colored blocks example (below), we’re pretty good at seeing things that are organized in expected ways. Lines, rows, groups, single colors. These are all things we knock out of the park like it’s batting practice. But the whole presentation is more like a baseball game. We swing and miss.

Individual colors are easier to match than multiple.

But this isn’t bad, it’s quite good, said Chater. “Your brain is really good at making creative metaphorical jumps.” Humans can interpret anything. It’s why we need explanations like Hanlon’s Razor; never attribute malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.


Chater analogized that our brains are like Escher’s infinite staircase. Situationally we explain anything. I did ‘this’ because of ‘that’. X caused Y. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. But that’s like looking at a set of stairs that leads from one staircase to another. Alone, it makes sense. In the context of the whole, it does not. “They (our explanations) all sound very convincing. They’re just like each patch of the image that looks three-dimensional. But if I try to get you to put those stories together it will not make sense.”

I found Nick Chater’s work from MR where Cowen blogged, “I can definitely recommend this book to those interested in serious popular science treatments of the mind, and it is not simply a rehash of other popular science books on the mind.”


Thanks for reading.

1/ But not driving and talking and listening. Even the most trivial auditory tasks screws up your ability to brake. Traffic, has many lessons.

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