The User Illusion Cutting Consciousness Down To Size Pdf

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.
May 3, 1998
This Is a SimulationThe brain creates a picture of reality that we mistake for the actual thing.

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Cutting Consciousness Down to Size.
By Tor Norretranders.
Translated by Jonathan Sydenham.
Illustrated. 467 pp. New York:
Viking. $29.95.

epressed by the second law of thermodynamics (order inevitably gives way to randomness), the physicist James Clerk Maxwell set out in the 19th century to show that there was a more powerful force in the universe: the human mind. He proceeded by designing a thought experiment: Suppose two glass spheres are connected by a tube to form a dumbbell. In the tube sits an imp -- Maxwell's demon -- measuring the air molecules drifting by. By opening and closing a tiny door, the demon allows the speedier molecules to accumulate in the left chamber, while keeping the slower molecules in the right one. Gradually the temperature -- a measure of the movement of molecules -- increases in the first chamber. If the door is held ajar, the hotter air rushes through the passage into the cooler chamber. Put a turbine in the middle of the flow and the system will perform work. Simply by exercising intelligence, Maxwell argued, the demon can create order from disorder and energy for free.

It took a century for scientists to realize fully what was wrong with this picture. In 'The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size,' the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders uses the story to launch an all-out assault on the worshipful place so often awarded to human awareness. Consciousness is not only powerless to overcome the entropic slide, he says, but incapable of giving more than the roughest sense of what is going on around us. The world as it appears is a paltry simulation. And the biggest illusion is that we trick ourselves into believing we experience the world's full glory.

What was the hole in Maxwell's argument? Obviously, or so it seems in the age of computers, the demon must process a great deal of information about the movement of the air molecules, and information processing expends energy. Arguing this, scientists like Leo Szilard tried to show that the demon could never squeeze more work out of Maxwell's machine than it put in. Szilard was on the right track, but the answer, as finally uncovered by Charles Bennett and Rolf Landauer of I.B.M., is subtler. To control the molecules, the demon must store information in its memory. Since no memory is infinite, the demon eventually has to flush out the data and start over again. It is this erasure -- not the gathering of information -- that must consume at least as much energy as is gained from the demon's manipulations. The second law is saved.

Over the years, entropy has also been shown to be intimately intertwined with probability. The orderly state of Maxwell's apparatus, with the fast-moving molecules all shoved to one side, is extremely unlikely. When the door between the chambers opens, the air rushes to maintain the more probable disorderly state. The connections between these ideas run throughout this book, and Norretranders handles them with a sophistication rarely seen in popular science writing. Since the book was published in Denmark as 'Maerk Verden' ('Mark the World') in 1991, it has sold some 112,000 copies, more than six per square mile, making it, its American publisher says, a 'major best seller' there. Whether it will do well here is anybody's guess. Much of the work Norretranders covers has been well mined by American science writers. But he puts the ideas together into an engaging story.

Seizing on the importance of discarded information as his reigning metaphor, he moves from physics to psychology, steadily whittling down consciousness. It is estimated that of the millions of bits of information flooding through the senses at any moment, most is thrown away, and only a tiny fraction enters into human awareness. From this thin stream of data (engineers call it a low-bandwidth signal), the brain creates a picture -- a simulation that we mistake for reality.

The User Illusion Cutting Consciousness Down To Size Pdf Format

Dazzled by this illusion, people are unaware of how much goes on in their heads subliminally. Since Eugen Herrigel's book 'Zen in the Art of Archery' was published in 1953, a whole genre has advised how the body can excel at everything from skiing and tennis to maintaining motorcycles, if only it can get the yammering voice of consciousness to shut up. We know how to do more than we can say. Norretranders shows the neurological foundation for this mysticism: below the threshold of awareness, bits are processed and discarded, with consciousness informed only on a need-to-know basis.

Most revealing of all are famous and controversial experiments by Benjamin Libet and other psychologists. Subjects wired with measuring electrodes are asked to move a finger. A half-second before the decision is made to flex the muscle, an electrical signal is detected in the brain. Astonishingly, the 'decision' seems to be made by unconscious neurons before the self becomes aware of its desire to act. 'Consciousness portrays itself as the initiator, but it is not,' Norretranders writes. 'Consciousness is a fraud.' Other research led Libet to conclude that it also takes about half a second for the brain to become aware of, say, a finger being pricked by a pin. Yet we think we experience the pinprick instantaneously. The brain's simulation of the world seems to be heavily edited.

Norretranders compares consciousness to a concept invented by the computer scientist Alan Kay: 'the user illusion.' Sitting at the computer dragging documents into folders or into the trash can, the operator is under a machine-induced hallucination. Inside the computer chips there are no documents, trash cans, words or letters -- just voltages and charges representing the ones and zeros of binary code. Instead of overwhelming the user with a flood of useless information, the computer projects a simple array of metaphors: icons that can be manipulated to get things done. In a similar way, the brain, throwing away unneeded data, generates its own user illusion: the interpretation called consciousness. No wonder people constantly surprise themselves as their bodies are led through an impossible turn on the ski slope or their brains are seized with an idea that seems to pop out of nowhere.

Maxwell himself marveled at this phenomenon in a quotation used as the epigraph here: 'What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.' But it was not some supernatural force using the great scientist as its instrument. He was merely in the grip of his own brain.

The User Illusion Cutting Consciousness Down To Size Pdf Document

George Johnson, the author of 'Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order,' is writing a biography of Murray Gell-Mann.