“A Change in Perspective Is Worth 80 IQ Points”- Alan Kay
The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders is in the top 5 most interesting books I’ve ever read. The better a book is, the harder it is to summarize. Instead, here are some of the truly perspective-altering insights I took away from it.
Why this is interesting. While your intelligence stays roughly static over the course of your life, you can expand your awareness. This book helped me understand the remarkable nature of our conscious awareness. In an age of information superabundance, one of the most important determinants of the quality of our lives is the quality of our information filters. Here is a brain-bending explanation of some reasons why.
“What You Can’t See” - Insights from “The User Illusion”
“In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it’s electrical fields. For the echo-locating bat, it’s air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality “out there.” Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? In the movie The Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, “Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?” The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.
…From my informal surveys, it is very uncommon knowledge that the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it.”
- David Eagleman, The Umwelt
In The User Illusion, Tor Nørretranders explains that the conscious mind can process a rough maximum of 60 bits a second of information. But we are unconsciously absorbing approximately 11 million bits per second all the time.
Wiggle your big toe. Now you are suddenly aware of how it feels. It was obviously there all the time, serving you sensory input, but you’ve only now brought it into conscious awareness. Your whole body is always whirring away, as is the outside world, but most of the iceberg is below the level of consciousness at any one time.
It’s a bit like being at a crowded party: there can be 100 other people having conversations around us, but we only have the ability to consciously listen to one person at a time. However, sometimes we pick out our name or a relevant detail from across the crowded room. Our unconscious attention serves something salient to our conscious attention. The real world is an even more extreme example: the million-to-one ratio of conscious to unconscious inputs means there is inevitably vast amounts of information that never reaches our awareness.
This makes total sense: if there is an infinite ocean of potential sensory input available to us, we’d be so overwhelmed we’d never be able to function. We’d burn out like a lightbulb connected to a nuclear reactor. Consciousness is primarily the result of a filter. As Nørretranders puts it:
“Consciousness is not about information but about its opposite: order. …. Because consciousness is a state that does not process much information - consciously. Consciousness consists of information no more than a person who consumes large amounts of food can be said to consist of food. Consciousness is nourished by information the same way the body is nourished by food. But human beings do not consist of hot dogs; they consist of hot dogs that have been eaten.”
It’s a counterintuitive point (that I’ve raised before), but Nørretranders argues that the value of information is therefore determined by what’s discarded, or “exformation.” The quality of your consciousness, and therefore your entire waking life, will be determined by the quality of your information filters.
“The notion of logical depth is epochmaking. It implies that it is not the face value of the information but that the prior process of discarding information is central to understanding complexity.”
When assessing incoming information, Nørretranders argues the two sources of most value are the volume of information discarded (“I read 60 books to bring you this insight”) or the computational time spent producing it (“I spent four years thinking about it”). He made me truly understand that raw information is often worse than useless: it takes up time, and requires filtering. That’s why I’d rather focus my attention on topics that raise awareness rather than transmit information.
Filtering incoming information from 11 million bits down to 60 takes time. Roughly half a second as it happens. The absolutely wild assertion is that consciousness registers a stimulus half a second after it happens, then puts it back in time to the moment it actually occurred. This gives the illusion of continuity. It also explains why unconscious processes seem to happen faster than conscious processes and “without us knowing”. This is something we’re all familiar with- when our hand leaps back from a hot stove, seemingly without our deliberate intention.
Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman argues that our perception of the world is more akin to a desktop on a computer. An interface that helps us interact with the environment, but with all the unnecessary complexity hidden away. In one way the inner workings of the computer are like our bodies, and the infinity of the Internet is like the outside world. Consciousness is like a browser window that filters the entire internet down to whatever you need to pay attention to at the time. When framed in that way it’s staggering to contemplate how much power Internet search engines now have over our lives. Search engines index 35 trillion web pages to serve you a handful of results in a second. That aggressive filtering role makes it equivalent to consciousness for the Internet. It turns the chaotic flood of external information into cognitive order.
It seems intuitive to assume that we’ve evolved to have the most accurate view of the outside world. But that’s not what Hoffman argues. We didn’t evolve to experience everything, because then we’d be gibbering wrecks overwhelmed by literally a trillion times more information than we could possibly process. We evolved to see what’s most useful for our evolutionary success.
“Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you."- Hoffman
One of the hardest things for me to grasp is that our sensory perception of the world may not be superior to other species. I tend to think that we are experiencing the “best possible” sensory version of the world. Hoffman’s point is that we’re not; we’re seeing the version best suited for what we specifically need from an evolutionary perspective. The earthworm doesn’t need to see beautiful sunrises, so it can’t. We don’t need to smell the glorious variety made possible by the two hundred million receptors in a bloodhound’s nose, so we don’t. To return to the internet search metaphor, normal consciousness is the first page of results, rather than the whole internet. We don’t need to see what’s on page 5 because it’s likely not relevant.
If we can only ever experience the world a certain way- does any of this matter?
Yes- I think it points to one of the most interesting ideas I’ve ever considered. If there are things we cannot sense, why should there not be forces acting on us that are hidden as well? With trillions of potential inputs that moves from a possibility to a likelihood. Part of the secret seems to be to attune our subtler senses to intuit when they are acting. It also implies we might be far more intimately embedded in our environment than we tend to assume. It also means the questions we ask determine the quality of our “search” results, a topic for next week.
Other interesting reading:
- Read: The Umwelt by David Eagleman (4 minute read)
- Why Read: The very brief text of Eagleman’s fascinating Umwelt hypothesis.
- Read: The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality- interview with Donald Hoffman in Quanta (20 minute read)
- Why Read: I first read this in 2016, it scrambled my brain, and I dismissed it as ridiculous. I am obviously no longer so sure.
Thanks to Jim O’Shaughnessy and Brian Roemmele for their original recommendation of the book!
If you read the book, let me know what you think!
Director of Communications and Content
The Knall/Cohen/Pence Group
Work (317) 571-4525
Cell (917) 656-2742