The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

The Mind is Flat

In an AQR webinar, behavioural scientist Nick Chater challenges all you thought you didn't know about the hidden depths of the unconscious mind, talking to Nick Southgate

Isn’t technology brilliant? At home on a hill in rural Wales, with most of the country snowbound, I watched Nick Southgate and Nick Chater discuss the latter’s book The Mind is Flat and its relevance to qual. I glanced at my spaniel, Raffles. “Your mind’s flat for sure. Deepest thought is when your next walk will be.”

Then we were off, with a deft introduction by Louella Miles and an opener from Southgate to Chater: “How did you come to write this book?” This sparked a wide-ranging discussion that shifted seamlessly from cognitive science to the ‘improvising mind’. Humans, Chater argues, are more like fictional characters than we might think, “skating on thin ice as we flow through life, bumbling from one situation to another. We’re really quite good at maintaining the pretence that it’s all coherent”.

With questions from the audience, the Nicks explored the implications of the flat mind theory for qualitative research. Chater agreed with Southgate that he is “right to view qualitative research as an interpretive task; there is no better methodology than human judgement”, and “quant research that doesn’t start with qual tends to be pretty hopeless because you don’t know what questions you should be asking so you miss out on something crucial”.

But there are inherent challenges with applying qualitative research to the flat mind, with no unconscious depths to plumb, no hidden belief system to uncover. Human decisions are habitual (you drink tea in the morning because you always have), or they are contextdriven (you found the stranger attractive because of an adrenalin rush). Emotions don’t well up from within, they are “active interpretations” of your physiological state. So how does the qualitative researcher succeed? According to Chater, by being “as concrete as possible, as specific as possible”.

I found it revelatory to consider that my behaviour and emotions are simply my interpretation of a moment, not mined from a deep seam of genius, angst, and psychopathy. It is reassuring to think, (here Chater pointed to a link with CBT), that we can choose to interpret each moment differently. The mind-bending webinar was over and I looked at Raffles, who stared back, hopeful of a snowy walk. Perhaps we’re not so different after all.

 

Sarah Morris
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2019