Posted June 18, 2008, 3:21 pm

Self Afloat

One book I’ve recently finished reading is Tor Norretranders’s The User Illusion. Beginning with the basic tenets of thermodynamics and moving on to the physical cost of whittling unimportant information down to something meaningful through computation, logical depth, the nature of communication, and the information bandwidth of language, Norretranders arrives at the fact that the conscious mind may not be the most important thing going on in our heads. Of the nearly eleven million of bits of sensory information that comes in to our brains, we are conscious of very little. The capacity of consciousness can be measured and is found to be somewhere below forty bits a second, perhaps even as low as sixteen.

But these few bits of information are hardly enough to explain the wealth of human behavior or the richness of our perception of the world, and Norretranders argues that a great amount of subliminal (below the threshold of sensation or consciousness) perception, interpretation, simulation, decision making, communication, and thought processing goes on that gives our conscious mind the illusion of being in charge of the show.

The division between the conscious and the unconscious is presented as the coexistence of the conscious I, and the unconscious Me. While I is aware of things we can afford to spend time considering like language and social interaction, Me takes care of everything else, such as breathing, body language, the interpretation of light and shapes as recognizable objects and patterns, and anything else we are not conscious of.

By definition the I can only be conscious of what it is conscious of, and cannot be aware of what it is unconscious of. Surely we can shine the I like a flashlight onto different portions of our perception, like the sensation of wearing clothes or our respiratory rhythm, but in doing so we realize that there are many sensations we are not constantly conscious of.

One of thing that can be drawn from the dualism of the I and Me is an understanding of how pleasure can come from practiced activities. When you first learn how to do something, like tying shoelaces or riding a bike, it’s an akward and stilting process as the I is conscious of everything you’re learning to do. Eventually the activity becomes much easier, through practice the I gains confidence in the Me to forge on without supervision. For more complex tasks, Norretranders gives the example of a concert pianist, there can be great respect for the unconscious Me’s ability to go through such motions.

In a job, this can manifest as the satisfaction of your skills are being properly applied, of everything working the way it should and allowing the Me to operate smoothly. I think a lot of the satisfaction I get from working as a bike mechanic comes from the sensation of moving from one task to another without stopping every thirty seconds to think “what am I doing?”, “how do I do this?”, “what should I be doing?”.

When everything is going well, things get done. My hands know how much torque to apply to a bolt. My arms know where on the board to reach for right tools (when I can keep the board organized). My ears know the difference between the sound of a customer opening the door and walking in, and a customer holding it open to bring their bike in.

In Chico you can find stickers stuck everywhere that read “Everyone Is Going Conscious”. Not if I can help it!

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