02 August 2007

Is Consciousness Just a Trick of the Brain?

According to Tor Norretranders' fascinating book, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, your brain is tasked with an amazing responsibility. Your senses bombard it with about 11 million bits per second. Consciousness, however, can process only about 10 to 40 bits per second (estimates vary). So, the challenge of your brain is to process 11 million bits into 20 bits in way that accurately represents, or maps back to, the 11 million bits. The million+ bits flowing in from your eyes, for instance, have to be processed into familiar shapes ("Hey - that's my buddy Bill!") that shows up in consciousness as one bit rather than millions of disparate bits indicating colors, shapes, and spatial location. Cognitive processes below the surface of consciousness, processes that by definition we are unaware of, translate the millions into the few.

As it turns out, the brain takes about half a second to perform this feat - a remarkably rapid rate of calculation for processes so complex. But a half second is a really long time when it comes to awareness and sensations. This creates a challenge.

How is it that we don't seem to be going through reality with a time delay? Why aren't we aware of this half second delay? Well, for one thing, we' re only aware of what we're aware of and that is whatever is presented by consciousness . And consciousness performs an amazing feat: once it has processed the 11 million bits into the 20 bits to be comprehended by consciousness, it back dates this reality.

Let me repeat that. Tests indicate that although it takes a half second to process the sensations of reality into the perception of reality, consciousness basically tells us that it is instantaneous. It tricks us.

So, here's the real kicker. If consciousness lags reality and we don't, for instance, take a half second to decide to flex a finger or look up, what is the role of consciousness, or awareness? How is it that we interact with reality in real time even though our consciousness lags it by half a second?

It almost seems as though consciousness does less to make decisions than to trail after the cognitive processes that make such decisions - processes that are not even at the level of awareness - and explain, apologize, or rationalize what just happened. The role of consciousness may be less that of the driver of the car than that of the insurance agent who follows after the car, leaving behind claim forms in its wake.

If this is true, it raises another really important question. Who is writing my blog?


Bernadette said...

It's y=our past experience being filtered through the new data that we are processing. We rely heavily on this older data, I have noticed. I can tell by the references we draw on a consistent basis. It's what ties us into the peer factor so strongly.

LOBO said...


Tosh said...

Don't we feel the lag? If there are not cognitive events for the conscious, there is no "time" for it. If there are no new perceptions, there is nothing to notice as change and there is nothing to remember.

We can't react consciously to an unexpected input for less than 0.1 - 0.2 sec, so we are always late.

However, any entity that percepts reality, i.e. receives input and process it somehow, needs time to do so and even more time to react purposefully to unexpected event, recognized in the input.

Processing needs time, that's why any thinking device would "lag reality" and the final results of processing the whole input and the classifications of highest level (my buddy etc.) come finally.

Let's call the results "consciousness" or whatever...

Who writes your blog? What if everything does? The Universe writes your blog, as well as everybody's blog... ;)

You or me, we wouldn't exist and do things exactly the way we do, if everything else was not like it was.

katarina said...

Well yes, consciousness is an immersion of sorts, but with blinders on, at least on a conscious level. There is purpose to this filtration, as it brings us more focus and concentration. Sometimes we select our blinders and sometimes they are chosen for us.