A whole lot of books on the brain are published these days and you can read yourself into a coma trying to make sense of their various messages. So it was with my usual low-burn curiosity that I starting reading The Mind Is Flat by British behavioral scientist Nick Chater. At least the title is intriguing. But as I started reading it, I perked right up. Maybe that’s because it starts with a long riff on Anna Karenina and asks us to plumb the motivations of her suicide. Can we explain them? What if the great steam engine slammed on its brakes and Anna didn’t die? Would she be able to explain her own motivations to a psychologist while convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium?
Chater writes it makes no difference that Anna is a fictional character. We would go through the exact same mental peregrinations with a real person. In fact, the surviving real person, struggling to find clarity in the muddle of her feelings, would only be telling the psychologist a story about why she wanted to take her life. Chater’s point is a bold one: There is no deep truth about motivations to be found. “No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives,’ not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find,” he writes. “The inner, mental world, and the beliefs, motives, and fears it is supposed to contain is, itself, a work of the imagination.”