Monday, August 10, 2009

Notes on The User Illusion, part Two

This is part two of a summary of the fantastic book. The User Illusion

Our conscious mind consists of symbols that map into the rest of our mind. Every second more than 11 million bits are reduced to less than 50 bits of meaningful information at apparently no time at all.

Half a second before we try to do something consciously our brains has started its activity. Half a second!

  • Sit down and hold one finger up.
  • Whenever you feel like it, bend your finger.

Half a second before your finger is bent, your brain has started its activity! It does not feel like half a second does it? There is no way! 0.1 second is more likely. But the data has been reproduced and it is undeniable.

The consciousness of wanting to do something appears almost half a second after the brain has initiated its activity.

Our actions are initiated unconsciously.

Benjamin Libet

Benjamin Libet performed some experiments, in the sixties, while a friend of his was performing brain surgery. Libet stimulated the brain with electrical impulses and found that if the brain was stimulated less the half a second, it was not noticed at all. If the brain was stimulated more than halv a second the patient felt it. It appeared to the patient as if a certain area of his body had been touched, since there are no normal sensors inside the brain.

Libet then performed some other experiments. He stimulated a part of the brain that related to the left hand and at the same time he stimulated the right hand and the patient was to say which hand was stimulated first.

The hand had to be stimulated half a second after the brain to give the appearance to the patient that they where stimulated simultaneously.

The conscious experience is projected back in time so that the conscious mind believes that they are almost simultaneous. The brain is fooling itself.

The conscious is delayed, but it does its best to hide it. For itself. It is very convenient since it gives the mind the time to perform the reduction of the sensory data to what is needed to get a full experience.

Everyone knows that it doesn't take half a second to remove a hand from a hot stove, but it takes half a second to get the conscious back-dated experience.

So does this mean that we don't have free will? Libet does not think so. He says that there is time for the conscious mind to veto the unconscious decision.

The conscious is not a top-level unit that gives orders to its underlying processes. It is a selecting mechanism that chooses between the different options that the unconscious provides.

As long as the unconscious action-proposals work in sync with the conscious thoughts and feelings, they are hardly noticed. They are merged together with the conscious motives that take all the credit! --Harald Høffding

The conscious veto is often associated with an uncomfortable feeling, we usually feel best when we are not making conscious decisions. Compare this with for example Flow

I and Me

Nørretranders defines I as the conscious mind and Me as the rest of us.

I have free will, but it is not my I that has it, it is my Me.

The conscious mind is allowed to use its veto in situations where the Me allows it to. In situations where speed is critical, for example when something is threatening us, the conscious mind is left out of the loop.

A comfortable state of mind is when the Me is allowed to do what it does automatically without interference of the I. This state is neither associated with nervousness nor shyness, but with comfort and carelessness.

The User Illusion

The user illusion is a term coined by Alan Kay of Smalltalk fame. He used it to describe the metaphor of the desktop that was invented by him and his colleagues at Xerox PARC. His great idea was that it does not matter what really happens inside the computer as long as the interface presented to the user is useful and consistant.

Nørretranders argues that our consciousness is our user illusion. Our consciousness is our map into ourselves and our possibilities to affect this world. I am the user illusion of Me.

The conscious mind may appear when the brains' simulation of the world has become complete enough to require a model of itself. --Richard Dawkins

Experiments with split-brain patient has shown that the mind doesn't think twice about making up a story that is consistent with something that does not have anything to do with reality. An example of this is:

  • A split brain patient is shown two images
    • The right eye was shown a snowy landscape
    • The left eye was shown a chicken's foot.
  • The patient pointed to two images.
    • The right hand a snow-shovel.
    • The left hand a chicken.
  • When the patient was asked why he pointed at the two images:
    • He said that he picked the chicken because it matched the chicken's foot
    • And that he picked the shovel because you need the shovel to clean out the chicken house.

The mind lied without hesitation to make the selection of images consistent.

Our consciousness is delayed to allow it to perform the required calculations. First we sense, then we simulate, then we experience. But we have no notion of the simulation. Consciousness is depth appearing as shallow.

Learning and Knowing

There are lots of things that we know how to do that we cannot explain. How do you ride a bike? How do you walk? How does your mother look? Its impossible to explain, but simple to know, once it has been learned.

The I's role in learning is to have the disciplin to learn by repetition, and the foresight that when I have learned this I will enjoy practicing it. The consciousness, usually, gets in the way while learning and, certainly, gets in the way when we practice what we have learned.

Science, usually, clarifies what we already know. It explains what we already know but cannot explain to each other.

Science is just refinement of everyday knowledge --Albert Einstein

The relationship between the conscious learning and the non-conscious ability is similar in both practical areas, such as ballet, and theoretical areas such as science; in both cases we must put in a lot of hard work for something we don't completely understand, but that we still can share with others.

The Rise of Consciousness and Religion

Nørretranders brings up another researcher, Julian Jaynes, who argues that the consciousness of man didn't exist 3000 years ago. He has various theories to prove this. Among other things he brings up the Oracles of Ancient Greece and the voices religious people hear as examples of people who are acting without a consciousness. A pre-conscious man is just a me, and a conscious man thinks he is just an I.

He also makes an interesting point about religion. The I has to recognize that there is something greater than itself. But it is not a god it is the me. God is the part of man that the I cannot explain. Religion is too important to be left to the religious. It is the struggle between the carefree me and the worrying I.

The Limits of Consciousness

Most of the processes that go on inside our bodies we know nothing about. We cannot feel the blood flowing in our legs or our immune system attacking viruses, until the problems become large enough for the body to raise the temperature to increase the effect. We cannot hold our breaths long enough to kill ourselves. The unconscious part of us wont let us

The Beginning of the Universe

In the Universe there is as much negative matter as positive matter. The sum of it all is Zero. According to the laws of quantum mechanics it is possible for Nothing to split into something for a very short while. The less it is the longer it is allowed to exist. So, it the sum of everything in the Universe is Nothing can exist forever.


Emergence is the appearance of group characteristics when the number of elements increase. An example of this is Temperature. There is no temperature when there are only a few molecules but when the number of molecules increases the Temperature property emerges. In the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter talks about the emerging properties of the brain, the thoughts that cannot be described at a lower level.

Gödels proof suggests the possibility that an view from a higher level may have an explanation capacity that is totally missing at a lower level. --Douglas Hofstadter

A larger system consisting of simple rules can show characteristics that cannot be deduced from the rules.

It is impossible to know how yourself or another human will react, because it requires you to have access to all the information yourself or this other person has had and this is impossible since human being mostly function unconsciously.

The Liars Paradox, "I'm lying" is not a liars paradox. It is the truth about our consciousness. --Thor Nørretranders

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