The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

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Overview

As John Casti wrote, "Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness." This groundbreaking work by Denmark's leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are unaware of it, our brains sift through and discard billions of pieces of data in order to allow us to understand the world around us. In fact, ...

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Overview

As John Casti wrote, "Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness." This groundbreaking work by Denmark's leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are unaware of it, our brains sift through and discard billions of pieces of data in order to allow us to understand the world around us. In fact, most of what we call thought is actually the unconscious discarding of information. What our consciousness rejects constitutes the most valuable part of ourselves, the "Me" that the "I" draws on for most of our actions--fluent speech, riding a bicycle, anything involving expertise. No wonder that, in this age of information, so many of us feel empty and dissatisfied. As engaging as it is insightful, this important book encourages us to rely more on what our instincts and our senses tell us so that we can better appreciate the richness of human life.

Keep your eyes peeled or you might miss something. Denmark's leading science writer Tor Norretranders believes that a great deal of our existence is being edited out by our unconscious. According to Norretranders, your brain processes only 16 of the 11 million bits of information our senses take in per second. Written for a non-technical audience, Norretranders explains scientific theories and medical facts to prove his theory of user illusion and to encourage readers to look beyond the obvious and explore the unknown.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Norretranders, the author of ten books on topics ranging from the environment to quantum mechanics, is a prominent Danish science writer, television host, and lecturer. This book, a best seller in Denmark and the first of Norretranders's books to be published in America, integrates key concepts from a variety of disciplines to demonstrate the limits of consciousness. According to Norretranders, humans are conscious of only a fragment of what they sense, think, or do. The conscious "I" (which operates on a lower bandwidth of information than the unconscious) is presented with an interpretation; unconscious information processing has already discarded much of the incoming information. In fact, it is the information-rich, nonconscious "Me" that determines much of our behavior; consciousness is an expedient self-delusion. To bolster his theory, the author cites research conducted on split-brain patients and incorporates a rich array of ideas from chaos theory to subliminal perception. He has a remarkable ability to engage and guide the reader through a series of complex, challenging concepts and to render his conclusions both reasonable and convincing. For larger public and academic libraries.
--Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray College Library, Jacksonville, IL
Library Journal
Norretranders, the author of ten books on topics ranging from the environment to quantum mechanics, is a prominent Danish science writer, television host, and lecturer. This book, a best seller in Denmark and the first of Norretranders's books to be published in America, integrates key concepts from a variety of disciplines to demonstrate the limits of consciousness. According to Norretranders, humans are conscious of only a fragment of what they sense, think, or do. The conscious "I" (which operates on a lower bandwidth of information than the unconscious) is presented with an interpretation; unconscious information processing has already discarded much of the incoming information. In fact, it is the information-rich, nonconscious "Me" that determines much of our behavior; consciousness is an expedient self-delusion. To bolster his theory, the author cites research conducted on split-brain patients and incorporates a rich array of ideas from chaos theory to subliminal perception. He has a remarkable ability to engage and guide the reader through a series of complex, challenging concepts and to render his conclusions both reasonable and convincing. For larger public and academic libraries.
--Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray College Library, Jacksonville, IL
ALA Booklist
"This elaborate journey through the revelations of physics and chaos, complexity, and information theories elucidates the enormous changes wrought by our involvement in computers."
George Johnson
...an all-out assault on the worshipful place so often awarded to human awareness....a sophistication rarely seen in popular science writing....he puts the ideas together into an engaging story.
--George Johnson
Kirkus Reviews
A leading Danish science writer argues that our conscious mental processes are only the surface aspect of the mind.

Norretranders begins with a history of information theory, leading up to a distinction between the quantity of information (number of bits) transmitted and the quality of communication. A good conversation consists of much more than just the words exchanged: There is context, body language, tone, expression, an entire spectrum of information. Our conscious mind can process only perhaps a few dozen bits per second of that information. Millions of bits are processed by the senses in the same amount of time, choosing what the consciousness considers important. A road sign displaying a curved line is all a driver needs to see to slow down; by the time he could absorb a detailed history of the accidents caused by excessive speed on the curve ahead, it would be too late. In short, conscious and linear discourse is only a fraction of what our mind perceives. In partial explanation Norretranders adopts the metaphor of consciousness as the equivalent of the "user interface" of a computer system: The user sees only the screen icons that trigger commands inside the machine, largely unaware of the actual machine language in which those commands are written. Some researchers even postulate that consciousness is a relatively new mental process; according to one interpreter, the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey appear to act completely without self-awareness. Consciousness may indeed be nearing its end; only a few generations from now it may be obsolete. This leads to speculations on what is likely to follow, although naturally without firm conclusions. Butthe author sees no great loss; better to understand the territory than to read the map.

Clearly written speculations on a highly provocative subject; food for serious thought about thought itself. Highly recommended.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140230123
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/1/1999
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 409,543
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter 3: Infinite Algorithms

If science can attain its goal, then Maxwell's demon can also attain its goal: toknock holes in the most fundamental law of nature discovered by science.

In reality, this is the consequence of the question Wojcieh Zurek posed in1988: If the only reason Maxwell's demon does not work is that the demonexpends masses of energy on forgetting everything it has learned, the demoncould simply summarize its knowledge in a few formulae it would not cost muchto forget again. Then it would be able to cash in on almost the entire benefit ofknowing the world at the molecular level-it would be able to extract heat from thenight frost at no cost. The second law of thermodynamics would be violated, theperpetual motion machine possible-and the natural science view of the worldwould be in deep trouble.

So it must be impossible for the demon to "compress" its knowledge into afew simple formulae and data that tell the whole history of the molecules in thecontainer in which the demon operates.

But if it is impossible for the demon to do so, surely it must be impossible forhuman beings? The goal of science has always been to draw up the mostconcise description of the world possible. But there must be limits as to howconcisely the world can be described. Or there will be problems with Maxwell'sdemon.

That is the consequence of Wojcieh Zurek's question: If we can prove thatwe can describe the whole world in an arbitrarily concise form, the mostfundamental assertion in our perception of the world breaks down: the secondlaw will be breached.

Maxwell's demon is not just a prandthermodynamics Maxwell's demon is a problem for our entirecosmography unless the notion that the entire world can be described in all itsdetails by just a few brief equations of almost divine beauty is incorrect.

It is. This was proved in 1930 in a study of the most basic problems in thefoundation of mathematics. It was a realization that totally transformed thesituation of the mathematicians and logisticians; a realization that forcedscientists to admit that they would never be able to prove everything in thisworld, that human understanding of the world will forever contain intuitiveinsights that cannot be proved; that human beings know more about the worldthan they can explain via a formal system.

This realization, understandably called the most profound proof ever carriedout, concerns the limits of the certainty of human knowledge, the limits of whatwe can prove. It is proof that we cannot prove everything, even when we know itis true.

That this should be remotely connected to thermodynamics and theimpossibility of building perpetual motion machines can hardly have occurred tomathematician Kurt Gödel when he published his proof of a theorem in January1931. It took another half century, and it came almost as a relief, to realize that itwas precisely Gödel's theorem that led to the explanation of why Maxwell'sdemon did not work.

For in Gödel's theorem we simply come to grips with the very limits of allformal knowledge -- and thereby, in one sense, the only certain knowledge we willever possess: An infinity of truth can never be embraced by a single theory.

Only the world is big enough to understand the w ever be made that includes everything, unless the map is theterrain itself, in which case, of course, it is not a map.

Modern mathematics' account of its own foundations was annihilated at astroke. The dream of certitude withered.

"Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen." "This was the great mathematicianDavid Hilbert's conclusion to his great summarizing lecture whenhis native town, Königsberg, made him an honorary citizen on 9 September1930. "We must know. We shall know."

For decades, David Hilbert had been the great spokesman for the possibilityof a clear, definitive account of the logical foundations of mathematics In 1900,he had listed the problems yet to be solved before the foundations ofmathematics were under complete control. It had to be shown that mathematicalscience comprised a coherent, uncontradictory, exhaustive logical system.

Again and again during the early decades of the twentieth century, Hilbertemphasized that such an absolute clarification of the foundations ofmathematics was in sight, that there was sense in the belief that anymathematical problem could be solved. "We are all convinced of that," he said,and went on to describe the mathematician's dream. After all, one of the thingsthat attract us most when we apply ourselves to a mathematical problem isprecisely that within us we always hear the call: Here is the problem, search forthe solution; you can find it by pure thought, for in mathematics there is noignorabimus [we shall not know]."

In 1930, when Hilbert was sixty-eight and retired from his professorship inGöttingen, capital of German mathematics, one of especially gratifying: honorary citizenship of his native town. Theceremony was to take place in the autumn, when the Gesellschaft deutscherNaturforscher und Arzte (German Society of German Scientists and Physicians)was to have its ninety-first convention in Königsberg, which has played a veryspecial role in the intellectual history of Germany because the philosopherImmanuel Kant lived and worked all his life there.

David Hilbert decided to give a grand lecture on the occasion of hisinvestiture: a lecture in which he would be able to forge the link back to Kant,regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of modern times, if not thegreatest. Under the title Naturerkennen und Logik, he directed sharp butpolitely formulated criticism at Königsberg's great son.

At the end of the 1700s, Kant had realized that human knowledge was basedon a number of preconditions that precede experience. We can know the worldonly because our knowledge is based on a series of concepts or categories,such as time and space, that themselves cannot be known. We see through veryspecific spectacles, which we cannot question, for they themselves constitutethe precondition forour being able to see at all. Kant talked about the a priori of knowledge, conceptsand categories that are preconceived prerequisites to any understanding.

Hilbert did not agree. "Kant has greatly overestimated the role and the extentof the a priori," he said in his address. "We see now: Kant's a priori theorycontains anthropomorphic dross from which it must be freed. After we removethat, only that a priori will remain which also is the foundation of puremathemat words, his project was to anchor mathematics in a handful of logical,mathematical principles from which anything could be proved in a final,conclusive fashion. This meant that logic would be able to explain most of humanintuition, so there would be no need for Kant's a priori -- things in ourunderstanding that we cannot account for rationally, so that in the final analysisthe explanation of understanding rests in the fact that we are what we are and weperceive the world the way we do. Hilbert wanted to do away with this illogical apriori. He wanted a thoroughly transparent explanation of our knowledge.

In the 1800s, the French philosopher Auguste Comte founded positivism, thephilosophical school which says we must stick to knowledge that can bepositively underpinned -- i.e., through experience or logical and mathematicalproofs. Anything else is unscientific. Comte's was an attitude highly critical ofKant.

But positivism did not go far enough for Hilbert. In his address, he referred toComte and his discussion of the problem of unsolvable problems (which is aproblem for any philosophy that will accept only knowledge the correctness ofwhich can be proved).

Hilbert stated, "In an effort to give an example of an unsolvable problem, thephilosopher Comte once said that science would never succeed in ascertainingthe secret of the chemical composition of the bodies of the universe. A few yearslater, this problem was solved.... The true reason, according to my thinking, whyComte could not find an unsolvable problem lies in the fact that there is no suchthing as an unsolvable problem."

There are no limits to thought, everything can be unders understood. Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.

A local radio station received a visit from Hilbert that day. Twomathematicians from Königsberg had arranged for him to repeat the conclusionof his address in the studio, so his words would go out on the air and berecorded for posterity. ...

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Table of Contents

Preface PART I: COMPUTATION Chapter 1: Maxwell's Demon Chapter 2: Throwing Away Information Chapter 3: Infinite Algorithims Chapter 4: The Depth of Complexity PART II: COMMUNICATION Chapter 5: The Tree of Talking Chapter 6: The Bandwidth of Consciousness Chapter 7: The Bomb of Psychology Chapter 8: The View from Within PART III: CONSCIOUSNESS Chapter 9: The Half-Second Delay Chapter 10: Maxwell's Me Chapter 11: The User Illusion Chapter 12: The Origin of Consciousness PART IV: COMPOSURE Chapter 13: Inside Nothing Chapter 14: On the Edge of Chaos Chapter 15: The Nonlinear Line Chapter 16: The Sublime Notes Bibliography Index

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Interviews & Essays

On Saturday, May 23rd, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Tor Norretranders to discuss THE USER ILLUSION.


Moderator: Welcome, Tor Norretranders! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this afternoon. How are you doing today?

Tor Norretranders: Thank you for the invitation. This will be fun! I am doing fine tonight -- here in Copenhagen it's 9pm of a fine spring evening. So let's get started.


Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: What would you consider some nonconscious human activities?

Tor Norretranders: Most human activities are nonconscious, in particular when the human performing them has experience in doing them. The better we are at something -- say, typing -- the less we are conscious of the process as we perform it. Many activities, such as dancing, singing, playing with kids, playing soccer, entering into a deep conversation, or caring for someone else, cannot be done under the control and supervision of consciousness, but only when we trust ourselves enough to be nonconscious while doing it. That's the reason most of us seem to sing best when showering -- we believe no one is listening.


Mike from MMuntz@yahoo.com: How do you define consciousness?

Tor Norretranders: For something to be conscious and hence part of our conscious awareness we have to be conscious of it. This means that an activity can be perfectly rational, meaningful, purposeful, and functional yet not be something that we are aware of. Thus consciousness must be limited to the mental phenomena and actions that we actually are conscious of. And that is not much! Most things we do without conscious awareness. Thus the concept of consciousness can only be used when the person involved reports to be conscious of something. We cannot project consciousness into activities or states just because they seem functional or rational to us. It is different from knowing, feeling, thinking, sensing, in the sense that consciousness is to know we know, to feel that we feel, to think that we think, to sense that we sense, because we do a lot of this without actually being aware of it. Consciousness is subjective; my conscious experience can be had by no one else. Therefore, it can not be approached only on the basis of objective criteria, like a pulse or a muscle tonus.


Mac from Richmond, VA: What led you to the theory that the human mind consciously processes only 16 of the 11 million bits of information?

Tor Norretranders: Studies done over more than four decades indicate that we are not able to process more than a few handfuls of bits in a conscious way. Much more is going on inside us and between us and the world around us, but we are not at any moment conscious of the temperature of the room, even though we sense it, or the expansion of the universe. However, consciousness is as alert as it is narrow. We can jump quickly between being aware of the tightness of our shoes to ponder the infinite universe. But we cannot think of both at the same time. The number for the intake of information, 11 million bits per second, tells us how much information can enter our brain from the sensory apparatus and is a mainstream number used in many textbooks on neurophysiology, etc. On a more personal note, what led me to an interest in these numbers was the evident difference between what language and conscious reflection can convey between us and what we actually seem to know about each other. Clearly, there's more to meeting a person than a transcript of the conversation could convey.


Yohan from Suffern, NY: What type of empirical evidence do you have to support your theories?

Tor Norretranders: Many studies in neurophysiology, the study of the bodily basis for mental activity. Studies in information theory, in psychology, and other fields referred to in the book. Although the conclusions seem radical and surprising, the body of evidence supporting them is very strong. Most workers in the study of the mind would nowadays agree that consciousness plays a much smaller role in human functioning than everybody would have thought just a few decades ago. The book gives a long list of references to such work.


The Free King from Midwestern USA: Sir, what you say in your book is surely inspired and the product of great consideration that only an unfettered mind with talent could have produced, but isn't this all a bit impractical? The information to support your concepts is there, but as is said where I live, "You can use statistics (data, information) to prove anything. Sixty-three percent of us know that." Doesn't the idea that we should even attempt to alter our thinking patterns in such extensive ways invite an unresolvable conflict between the inherent nature of human thought and the abstract concepts it's capable of grasping? Is it even worth considering the attempt if it isn't compatible with the natural order that's already in place?

Tor Norretranders: My point is that we all suffer from an illusion of conscious control and believe that most of the good and great things we do are the result of conscious control. But this is a myth, in particular when we do very creative or benevolent things. Thus, I am not trying to change any natural order but to illuminate the fact that we could have more fun, do better work, and care more for each other if we allowed ourselves to understand that the good things and the good deeds come from our entire persons, rather than our conscious self-control. In a sense, what I am saying is something we all know but didn't perhaps know how to say.


Niki from Sudbury, MA: Were you the person to actually invent exformation? Had did that process come about?

Tor Norretranders: Yes, I invented the concept and gave it a name. It is closely related to concepts of depth in complexity theory (physics and mathematics) as is explained in the book. Exformation was a concept I needed to develop to understand communication. In particular as a writer, it is evident that most of the research you go through to write a book is not in the book but has to have been in your life (and have gone through your head) for the book to be of any interest. You compress 500 books into one volume. It struck me that really, this is what all communication is about: having something to say and then saying a little of it. So the most important part of a conversation is that which is not said but referred to in what is being said. Just like in this chat. Exformation is a neccessary complement to the concept of information, in order to make any progress in the study of human communication. Many people insist that the concept of information should deal with meaning, while it only deals with how difficult a message is to describe. My point is that something that contains very little information can be extremely meaningful and important, like a "yes" in a church. But the meaning is not in what is said, it is in what is referred to, the exformation, thrown-away information, in the mind of the communicator, but not in her mouth.


Tom from La Jolla, CA: Have you ever taught? Would you ever consider it?

Tor Norretranders: Yes, I have taught a lot and given numerous lectures here, there, and everywhere. My teaching has mainly been at college level and higher, but I used to do some high school stuff, too. Also, I have been doing a lot of television, which is basically teaching very big classes.


Krista from Knordgren@aol.com: What are your thoughts on the Internet? What type of future do you foresee for the Internet?

Tor Norretranders: I believe the Internet is of extreme importance. In a few decades, it will be everywhere, integrated into most activities, yet unnoticed like electricity is today. Considering the theoretical approach to human information processing of my book, I find it striking that telecommunications nowadays happens mainly at a bandwidth close to language and consciousness. In the near future, perhaps 15 years ahead, telecommunications will happen at the bandwidth of our sensory system. Thus the metaphor for telecommunications will not be conversation (like telephone) but presence. I do believe that this will be a major change in human interaction. We will have to invent as many ceremonies and protocols for regulating telecommunications as we now have for regulating presence (hello, goodbye, friend, marriage, hat-lifting, how are you, etc.). But we will have to do that over a few decades, as opposed to the thousands of years we've being developing protocols for presence. It is going to be some challenge. On the other hand, the democratic and ecological potentials in this are enormous. Everybody will have the ability to search and spread knowledge, contacts, and ideas. To make this coming communication chaos bearable, we'll have to invent many new schemes for human interaction. But it will help us see how little our conscious and language-based interaction actually convey. Artificial presence, which will be one of the consequences of the Internet, will, I believe, stimulate our interest in real presence, just being there, a theme much underestimated in our present culture. Hence, the implications of the Internet will also be ironical We will learn about the richness of being offline, because we try to mimic presence online.


Nick from New York City: How exactly do you suggest accepting chaos?

Tor Norretranders: By accepting the simple fact that we are not in control of the universe, even if our culture sometimes seems to believe so. We cannot plan, predict, and control everything. It is true for the environment but also for our personal life. To accept that is a relief to many, a source for fear and anxiety for others. My point is that we've been living fine without actually being in control, and that we can live even finer if we give up the attempt to be in control. The world is far richer than scientists were thinking just a few decades ago.


Niki from Niki_palek@yahoo.com: Does THE USER ILLUSION differ at all from MAERK VERDEN?

Tor Norretranders: THE USER ILLUSION is the American translation of the Danish book MAERK VERDEN.


Brian from Dayton, OH: I am a bit confused when you say, "Civilization is about linearity." Is that because of government, school, etc. restrictions on civilization? Can you please clear up with what you mean by civilization? I am a bit confused.

Tor Norretranders: Civilization is about linearity because it tends to limit the amount of information that we have to deal with in interacting with our environment: flattening out the terrain so we can drive bicycles and dance on the floor. It's great to do so, but my point is that the environment also becomes less interesting. When all we have is smooth roads and flat floors, only the biking and dancing can amuse us. But even if a summer meadow is difficult for bikes and hard on dancers, it is full of riches that we can just enjoy.


Carla from Santa Fe, NM: How exactly would you say that life is greater than we know?

Tor Norretranders: Because we cannot say to each other how great life is. We run out of words, out of time, and out of appreciation of the simple fact that life is so rich that we cannot express all of its richness. And we cannot know it either, for knowledge is about standing back from the flow of life and describing it. Hence my point is that you already know what I mean.


Steven from Berkeley, CA: I thought THE USER ILLUSION was great! How long have you been working on this book?

Tor Norretranders: Well, most of my life.... Professionally, I was working on this book for three years, but it's difficult to say, because it touches upon so many themes that I've dealt with in my professional and personal life, that it is hard to tell when it all started -- or ended. Thanks for the compliment.


Nick from New York City: Also, how do you suggest embracing the world? What specfically?

Tor Norretranders: Be here now and stretch out your arms in openness. If all you find is a computer screen, consider why you chose to be there, right now. I would guess that your motivation is just like mine We want to share our experience with other people. We have many ways of doing so. But openness is always vital. I know this answer leaves a lot to be deserved, but the question is really the most important part: how can one actually open up and embrace the world? Everybody will have to investigate for themselves. After all, no one can embrace it all. We have to do it together.


Moderator: Thank you, Tor Norretranders! Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?

Tor Norretranders: Thanks for an enjoyable and thought-provoking chat. I was impressed by the variety of themes taken up in the questions. It was a lot of fun to me. Have a nice day -- here in Copenhagen the spring evening has now become a pleasant and warm spring night. Best wishes and take care.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2013

    I must have read this over ten years ago. I found it to be very

    I must have read this over ten years ago. I found it to be very interesting as it has been one of the few books that I've read in the past decade or so that requires a person to use their brain to process what the mind is reading. I'd like to carry this around with me and read snippets here and there, but at the moment it is not available as a Nook book. Someone needs to fix that, immediately.

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  • Posted March 16, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Difficult Read

    I read this book because it was mentioned by a character in the novel "The Atheist's Church," a senior in high school like me, except that he was foreign. It must be true that foreign kids get a better education because this book was way over my head. Definitely a book for people with a solid education background, maybe a college degree. I love the author's name though.

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  • Posted October 10, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Very interesting read

    I was not entirely happy with the ending. I felt that the author was taking the premise and jumping off the deep end at that point. However, the material in the first 2/3 or so of the book was fascinating in demonstrating just how much is going on in our brains and just how limited consciousness really is.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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