May 25, 2004

I told her I thought it was important, That you could get lost in conversation.

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting in which Robin Williams asks Matt Damon: “What’s a good book?”
and he replies: “Whatever blows your hair back.”
What’s blowing my hair back at the moment is this book called ‘The User Illusion’ (yeah, people ask what I’m reading, and I say: “The User Illusion” and they think I’m reading some kind of Guns `N Roses biography), which is one of those books that everyone should read, because it really does blow my hair back quite regularly. Every now and then I have to stop and stare into the distance and just process the implications of what the book is saying.
It’s a study of everything humanity has learned about consciousness, starting with philosophy, then sociology, psychology, biology, and eventually quantum physics (and back to philosophy). So a lot of it is history and experimentation, but it’s written in an accessible way that is also quite fascinating.
One bit I really enjoyed was that apparently we consciously perceive the world at a rate of about 16 ‘moments’ every second. If something occurs faster than that rate, we don’t perceive it. The frightening thing is that this rate goes down as we get older- we perceive less ‘moments’ every second. This may explain the phenomenon everyone experiences when each year seems to be going faster than the other- you’re actually experiencing less of it.
Did you know they believe that our conscious mind only processes information at 40 bits per second? 40 bits! Think about that: A crappy dial-up modem transfers information at 56,000 bits per second. Yet our minds, despite taking in over a million bps through our various senses, can only think at a speed of 40bps. If that doesn’t blow your hair back, try this:
They reckon that your consciousness has a lag time of about half a second- which means that whenever you think about things consciously, you’re actually running half a second behind reality. More frighteningly, your unconscious makes decisions ahead of your conscious mind. Follow this to its natural conclusion, and it sounds awfully like our conscious mind doesn’t control any of our decisions at all! It just tries to keep up with decisions that have already been made.
Anyway, I’m only halfway through, so I’m looking forward to see if it answers the two big questions that have always bugged me:
What’s the point of consciousness?
Why did my consciousness end up in my body and not someone else’s?
I’ll be finished by the end of the week, so if anyone’s interested in getting their own hair blown back, please do get in touch. But one way or another, you should definitely read this book.


6 thoughts on “I told her I thought it was important, That you could get lost in conversation.

  1. I can’t answer these questions.
    My consciousness has a meeting with the client in 20 minutes.

  2. Never mind the book – if you can answer those two questions by Friday we’ll be quite impressed. If the book doesn’t answer them, then we’ll accept your own postulations. Personally I believe the answers are:
    1. There isn’t one. Unless “existence” itself constitutes a “point.” Since the film Good Will Hunting also exists, I suspect that it does not.
    2. Because it did. And if it hadn’t, what then?
    Not exactly satisfactory answers, but I believe all alternative answers are likely to rub margarine in my hair (which, as everybody knows, is what a bad book does).

  3. sweartogod,
    my consciousness does not play a role in any of the meetings I attend.

  4. if you’re thinking of passing your copy on, please consider this my wildly waving hand!
    i was just reading massumi, who also uses the half-second lapse example in his writing on movement and the ways we experience space. if you’re interested in those sorts of ideas on dynamic mind-body relationships and how they relate to conscious experience, you might like parables of the virtual.

  5. Hi Estee,
    I would happily pass this book on to you, but I fear the mailing price to Aussie would be greater than the cost of the book!
    Thanks for the recommendation, however, I’m always on the look-out for good stuff to read.

  6. ha ha fair enough! i was going to suggest trading you massumi for it but i suppose it wouldn’t make much sense sending books across the world. that’s what bookshops are for!
    speaking of which, i must confess that having the patience of a child, i’ve already looked for it at the bookshop and they’re expecting copies soon so i shan’t have long to wait!

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