The User Illusion, Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, by Tor Norretranders, published 1991 in Danish, English translation 1998.
Key: We’re primarily nonconscious. Shorthand: conscious self = “I”; unconscious self = “me” Training and preparation are key to any performance. The most important thing about training is that the I comes to trust the Me. The I learns to believe that the Me can feel the emotion and carry out the movement. Training creates a quantity of automatic skills that can be applied without the need for awareness that they are being so used. The I’s beady eye is there during the training but not during the performance proper.
Consciousness is at once the most immediately present and the most inscrutably intangible entity in human existence. Consciousness lags what we call reality.
Consciousness is riddled with deceit and self-deception. The conscious I is happy to lie up hill and down dale to achieve a rational explanation for what the body is up to; sensual perception is the result of a devious relocation of sensory input in time; when the consciousness thinks it determines to act, the brain is already working on it; there appears to be more than one version of consciousness present in the brain; our conscious awareness contains almost no information but is perceived as if it were vastly rich in information.
This is a profound book, particularly for someone like me who spends too much time “in his head.” Most of what we consider learning, from ISD to multiple-choice, focuses almost exclusively on the oversimplified, civilized, linear constructs of consciousness.
Trust the force. (The unconscious.)Could the effects of a little nonsconsciousness creeping into the conscious realm help account for ADD and schizophrenia?
Information is very tedious. What is interesting is getting rid of it-—and that means discarding it.
- Gödel goes from the old paradox of “I’m lying” to “I cannot be proved.” Consistency and freedom from contradiction can never be proved from within a system. Unprovability and undecidability are fundamental features of our world. We can know that it is order when we see it. But we cannot know that it is not order just because we cannot see it—and no mathematics, logic, or computers can help us. Order is order. The rest is undecided.
- Information is associated with entropy, a measure of thermodynamic disorder.
- Information cannot be defined without knowing the context. Not because there is anything wrong with our notion of information, but because the notions of order and randomness necessarily include an element of subjectivity.
There is a terrain between order and chaos: a vast undiscovered continent—-the continent of complexity. Complexity appears midway between the predictable and the unpredictable, the stable and the unstable, the periodic and the random, the hierarchical and the flat, the closed and the open. Between what we can count on and what we cannot.
- Complexity is to be measured not by the length of the message but by the work carried out previously. The meaning does not arise from the information in the message but arises from the information discarded during the process of formulating the message, which has a specific information content. What matters is not saying as much as you can. It is thinking before you speak.
“Exformation” and the richness of information remind me of the operations of compression algorithms. The more information, the longer it takes to create a ZIP archive. Compression from nonconscious to conscious is extreme, much heavier than compressing an image to jpeg at 1%. Nonconscious compression sands down all the rough edges found in the original.
Talking & exformation
- From congé, Victor Hugo wired his publisher about the success of Les Miserables, “?” His publisher replied “!” The important part is what was explicitly discarded, the “exformation.” A message has depth if it contains a large quantity of exformation.
- Exformation is the history of the message, information the product of that history. Each is meaningless without the other; information without exformation is vacuous chatter; exformation without information is not exformation but merely discarded information.
- The least interesting aspect of good conversation is what is actually said. What is more interesting is all the deliberations and emotions that take place simultaneously during conversation in the heads and bodies of the conversers.
The Bandwidth of Consciousness
- What we perceive at any moment is limited to an extremely smart compartment in the stream of information about our surroundings flowing in from the sense organs. Our consciousness processes about a millionth of the information it receives. Metaphorically, consciousness is a spotlight that shows but a tiny fraction of what’s on stage.
- Consciousness consists of discarded information far more than information present.
- Consciousness possesses peerless agility, but at any given moment you are not conscious of much at all. To be aware of an experience means that it has passed.
- Human bandwidth is ±16 bits/second. The rate varies with age:
“All these numbers are approximations,” but there’s a giant mismatch of input to consciousness no matter how you slice it:
Total bandwidth (bits/second)
Conscious bandwidth (bits/second)
Impression à Consciousness à Expression
|text read aloud
The Bomb of Psychology
In 1957, an enterprise named Precon Process and Equipment Corporate, in New Orleans, started offering the placement of subliminal messages in advertisements and movies—messages not perceived by consciousness but containing sufficient influence to get somebody to pay for their being there. Messages that work unconsciously or preconsciously, hence Precon. Backlash stunted pscyhological research for years.
When the case reopened, scientists found that the unconscious is not merely a morass of repressed sexual desires and forbidden hatred. The unconscious is an active, vital part of the human mind. One canlearn form a stimulus that is so brief that one does not perceive it. A large number of social judgments and inferences, especially those guiding first impressions, appear to be mediated by such unconscious processes.
A person perceiving a familiar object is not aware that what is perceived is as much an expression of memory as it is of perception. Thinking itself is highly unconscious. In The Stream of Thought, William James noted that consciousness “is always interested more in one part of its object than in another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks.”
The View from Within
Computers find it easy to do what we learned at school. But computers have a very hard time learning what children learn before they start school: to recognize a cup that is upside down, recognizing a face,seeing.
Richard Gregory: “Our sight really consists of a hypothesis, an interpretation of the word. We do not see the data in front of our eyes; we see an interpretation.” And, “The senses do not give us a picture of the world directly; rather they provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies before us. Indeed, we may say that the perceptions of an object is an hypothesis.” We see a configuration (in German, gestalt). We do not see what we sense. We see what we think we sense.
Pablo Picasso was once asked why he did not pain people “the way they really are.” Picasso asked the questioner what he meant. The man pulled a snapshot of his wife out of his wallet and said, “That’s my wife.” Picasso responnded, “Isn’t she rather small and flat?”
Kant distinguished between things as they are, Das Ding an sich, and things as we know them, Das Ding für uns. A study of frogs showed that “the eye speaks to the brain in a language already highly organized and interpreted, instead of transmitting some more or less accurate copy of the distribution of light on the receptors.” Visual input passes through the thalamus before getting to the cortex.
attention. The essence of consciousness of the outside world. When a number of nerve cells oscillate in synchrony at forty hertz, this is attention.
Our actions begin unconsciously! Consciousness of the will to carry out an act decided on by ourselves occurs almost half a second after the brain has started carrying out the decision. Consciousness portrays itself as the initiator but it is a fraud – which requires considerable cooking of the temporal books.
Free will operates through selection, not design (It can veto.)
Man is not primarily conscious. We are not conscious of very much of what we sense, what we think, or what we do. We’re primarily nonconscious.
Shorthand: conscious self = “I”; unconscious self = “me”
Training and preparation are key to any performance. The most important thing about training is that the I comes to trust the Me. The I learns to believe that the Me can feel the emotion and carry out the movement. Training creates a quantity of automatic skills that can be applied without the need for awareness that they are being so used. The I’s beady eye is there during the training but not during the performance proper.
(Ref: The Inner Game of Tennis. “When you short-circuit the mind by giving it an ‘overload’ of things to deal with, it has so many things to attend to that it no longer has time to worry. The “I” checks out and lets the “me” check in. Also, this is what Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is all about.)
The social field is established through agreements, social contracts, entered into verbally. So the cohesive force in our social life is something with a very low capacity or bandwidth.
Spirituality merely involves taking your own life seriously by getting to know yourself and your potential. This is no trivial matter, for there are quite a few unpleasant surprises in most of us. The dominant psychological problem of modern culture is that its members do not want to accept that there is a Me beyond the I. The Me is everything the I cannot accept: It is unpredictable, disorderly, willful, quick, and powerful.
“placebo” = “I want to please”
The User Illusion
Studies of split-brain patients show that the I lies like crazy to create a coherent picture of something it does not understand in the slightest. We lie our way to the coherence and consistency we perceive in our behavior. (It’s like making up logical explanations for a dream or filling in the missing portions of a fuzzy picture.)
What we experience directly is an illusion, which presents interpreted data as if they were raw. It is this illusion that is the core of consciousness: the world experienced in a meaningful, interpreted way. If there were not half a second in which to synchronize the inputs, we might experience a jitter in our perception of reality. I am my user illusion of myself.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, Princeton, 1976. >3,000 years ago, consciousness did not exist. All the nonlinguistic activity in the right brain was passed on to the left brain in the form of voices talking inside people’s heads. There was no independent reflective activity in people’s heads.
The body is in a state of interaction with the world. We eat, drink, and dispatch matter back into the cycle of nature. In no more than five years, practically every atom in the organiism gets replaced. The vast majority of atoms are replaced far more often. Identity, body structure, appearance, and consciousness are preserved—but the atoms have gone. The feeling of individual continuity is real enough, but it has no material foundation.
The dominant theme of our times is consciousness regaining composure through the recognition of the nonconscious; computer formalism regaining composure through the recognition of unpredictability; descriptions regaining composure through the recognition of what is being described; the low bandwidth regaining composure through the recognition of the high bandwidths.
Interesting things happen when and where order meets chaos. People live on coasts, rivers, mountain chains, mountain passes, near boundaries. Neat the transition from one element to another.
The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. But that is what we are consciously trying to do with the artificial lives we live in our technological civilization.
Most of the world has to be described through nonlinear mathematics—i.e., formulae and forms that are not regular and smooth but marked by the fact that the tiniest change can lead to a huge difference, because things bend and break everywhere. Our civilization is completely different from nature. Civilization is about attaining predictability; and predictability is the opposite of information, because information is a measure of the surprise value of a message: the astoundment it unleashes.
Zeno’s paradoxes. An arrow flying through the air. At any given instant, where is it? Stopped or moving? The impossibility of the question is the result of trying to split time and space into an infinitely divisible continuum.
The balance between the linear and the nonlinear is a major challenge for civilization. In the final analysis, it is closely related to the challenge of finding the balance between the conscious and the nonconscious. After all the difference between consciousness and nonconsciousness is precisely that there is very little information in consciousness. It can therefore apprehend only straight lines, having trouble with crooked ones, which contain far too much information.
The tendency of civilization toward linearity is therefore precisely the power of consciousness over nonconsciousness; the power of projection over spontaneity; the power of the gutter over the raindrop. The straight line is the medium of planning, will, and decision. The crooked line is the medium of sensory perception, improvisation, and abandon.
The I is linear; the Me is nonlinear. The social domain, the conversational domain, tends to be linear, unalloyed chatter. The personal domain, the domain of sensory perception, is more able to preserve the nonlinear.
Art seeks out the nonlinear; science the linear. The computer demolishes the difference, because it gives consciousness the ability to convert large quantities of information by machine.
Information society presents a lack of information. For just as there is far too little information in a linear city, there is far too little information in information society—a society where more people’s jobs are performed body, mind, and soul via the low bandwidth of language. Where artisans in the past used to possess vast tacit knowledge of materials and processes and crops, they now have to relate to consciously designed technical solutions presented via computer interface. Sensory poverty is on its way to becoming a major problem in society, provoking a cry for meaning amidst the flow of information. Man has moved down to a lower bandwidth, and he is getting bored. Consciousness is taking man over: The straight line is vanquishing the crooked one, and the amount of information in life is getting too small.
I used to filter many concepts and value judgments through the left brain/right brain metaphor. The more important distinction is what’s conscious and what’s not. CBT, PI, ID, and the like all embody the reductionism and oversimplification of consciousness. “Objective” tests are 100% reductio ad absurdum.
Information is a measure of unpredictability, disorder, mess, chaos, amazement, indescribabilty, surprise, otherness. Order is a measure of the opposite.
Consciousness does not consist of very much information and regards itself as order. It is proud that by discarding information it can reduce all the disorder and confusion around it to simple, predictable laws for the origin of phenomena.
Civilization consists of social and technological organization that rids our lives of information. As civilization has progressed, it has enabled the withdrawal of consciousness from the world.
It has enabled a worldview in which the acknowledged picture of the world is identified with the world; where the map is identified with the terrain; where the I denies the existence of the Me; where all otherness is disclaimed, except in the form of a divine principle; where man can live only if he believes that the otherness is also good.
But consciousness has also reached the age of composure. Through conscious studies of man and his consciousness, it has become clear that man is much more than his consciousness. It has become clear that people perceive far more than consciousness knows; that people do far more than consciousness knows. The simulation of the world about us, which we experience and believe is the world itself, is made possible only through systematic illusions and reductions that result from discarding most of the unpredictable otherness that imbued the world outside us.
Inside us, in the person who carries consciousness around, cognitive and mental processes take place that are far richer than consciousness can know or describe. Our bodies contain a fellowship with a surrounding world that passes right through us, in through our mouths and out the other end, but is hidden from our consciousness.
Consciousness is a wonderful creation, brought about by biological evolution on earth. An eternal awareness, a bold interpretation, a life-giving measure. But consciousness is about to retain composure by appreciating that it does not master the world; that an understanding of simple rules and principles of predictability in the world does not provide the possibility of guessing what the world is like.
Reposted from review in 2002.