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The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size - Tor Nørretranders, Jonathan Sydenham, Tor Nørretranders A spectacular book that has completely changed my understanding of the mind and consciousness. I poured through this 400+ pages in just a few days - I couldn't set it down.

The critical arguments in this book are:

1. Research shows that your unconscious processes a huge amount of sensory information; your conscious, on the other hand, processes only a tiny fraction of it (roughly 1 millionth).

2. This implies that the unconscious is responsible for an enormous percentage of your thinking: it decides what data to pay attention to and what to discard. A large part of our life experience - what we enjoy, how we learn, etc - is completely unconscious (e.g. body language, enjoyment of music, sports).

3. In fact, the unconscious may even decide what actions you will take: numerous studies show that actions that feel intentional are actually triggered before you are consciously aware of having made the decision to act. This is hard to believe, right? However, the studies have been replicated many times. The implication is that the unconscious not only feeds a highly filtered view of the world to your conscious - it also feeds actions and decisions to it. The conscious can veto the decisions, but not initiate them!

4. There is also ample evidence that the conscious is not fed a filtered list of raw data, but rather, a simulation of the real world. That is, the unconscious receives tons of raw data, figures out what to keep or discard, produces a simulation, and feeds the simulation (but not the process of how it was created!) to your conscious.

5. Think over what it means for your conscious to be exposed to a simulation rather than raw data. This has deep ties to optical illusions, humor, sleeping, perception, learning, and more.

6. The user illusion is our belief that this simulation *IS* life. But it is merely our internal model of it: useful and coherent, but definitely not accurate.

I can't recommend this book enough.

And now, a huge list of quotes from the book. I had to force myself to not stop every 5 paragraphs and write these down, as the book is full of insight that changes how you think.

"A mess is hard to describe. Especially in detail."

"There may be an enormous amount of work or thought behind a given message or product. Yet it may be invisible. Making things look easy is hard."

"The least interesting aspect of good conversation is what is actually said. What is more interesting is all the deliberations and emotions that take place simultaneously during conversation in the heads and bodies of the conversers."

"The main thing in music is not the sound waves. It is that the composer/player converts a number of mental states into a pattern which evokes the same (or different) mental states in the listener."

"The bandwidth of consciousness is far lower than the bandwidth of our sensor preceptors."

"Only one millionth of what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our other senses inform us about appears in our consciousness."

"Fairy tales are not meant for children, you see. If they were, they would not work. For the true power of the fairy tale comes because children and grown-ups can together experience the wonder of the narrative."

"Stories read aloud are a matter not of words but what words do to people. Live concerts are not about music but about what the music does to people. Football matches watched at the stadium are not about football but what football does to people."

"Albert Einstein, who wrote 'The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thoughts.'"

"The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there were a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated this one from the rest."

"Pablo Picasso was once asked in a train compartment by a fellow passenger why he did not paint people 'the way they really are.' Picasso asked what the man meant by the expression. The man pulled a snapshot of his wife out of his wallet and said, 'That's my wife.' Picasso responded, "Isn't she rather small and flat?'"

"Our experience of reality is in a sense an experience of our simulation of what goes on out there."

"The desire to carry out an action becomes a conscious sensation long after the brain has started initiating it."

"In other words, the conscious experience is projected back in time in exactly the same way as a stimulation of the sensory cortex is projected onto the body."

"Consciousness cannot initiate an action, but it can decide that it should be carried out."

"Our consciousness lags behind because it has to present to us a picture of the surrounding world that is relevant. But it is precisely a picture of the surrounding world it presents us with, not a picture of the superb work the brain does."

"As British biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, 'Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.'"

"Alan Kay writes: 'The user experience was once the last part of a system to be designed. Now it is the first. It is recognized as being primary because, to novices and professionals alike, what is presented to one's senses is one's computer. The 'user illusion' as my colleagues and I called it at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is the simplified myth everyone builds to explain (and make guesses about) the system's actions and what should be done next.'"

"The user illusion, then, is the picture the user has of the machine. Kay and his colleagues realized that it does not really matter whether this picture is accurate or complete, just as long as it is coherent and appropriate."

"People do not merely see. We simulate; make models so that we can compare."

"When we dream, we may well be carrying out a simulation: We visualize something and understand (often weird) connections in it."

"Science is a collective project aimed at knowing the world in a way we can tell each other about. Knowledge becomes scientific knowledge only after it is told in a way that allows other people to reproduce that knowledge. In an unambiguous way."

"The bandwidth of language is far lower than the bandwidth of sensation. Most of what we know about the world we can never tell each other."

"Everything is connected, so we cannot comprehend anything exhaustively at all unless we comprehend everything exhaustively. But this raises the problem that such a totally exhaustive description necessarily contains just as much information as what it describes; a complete description of the world takes up just as much room as the world itself. [...] The only map that displays every detail of the terrain is the terrain itself."

"In other words, we have to know everything a person has learned, and undergo all the experiences a person has undergone, before we have enough information to compute what that person will do. Everywhere that person has been, we must have been; everywhere that person has acted, we must have acted. But in that case we must necessarily be that person ourselves."

"Hofstadter's point is that even a fully defined and determined system of simple rules can display such complex behavior that it is meaningful to describe it in terms of decisions and will, quite irrespective of the fact that the laws affecting the simple level govern completely. A completely implemented version of a set of simple rules can display properties we cannot find in the rules themselves; the reason we cannot find the properties in the rules is a general condition of the world that is described in Godel's theorem and Chatin's extension of it."