Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Bandwidth of Conciousness

Anyone contemplating buying a high definition TV might like to consider the following, one crucial part of the system will always operate at a much lower data rate than whatever device you select and carry home from the store. - The human consciousness, that part of the chain which actually experiences and recalls those movies has a data rate much, much lower than the TV. Tests have shown that the conscious experience runs at little better than 20 bits per second. Compared to HDTV which brags about data rates of 10 million bits per second.

Of course, the manufacturers of modern audio visual systems claim to deliver an experience much closer to reality than earlier models. What we call experience includes a welter of unconscious sensation. All this enriches things but what we remember of the event is what has fallen into the domain of the conscious mind. The conscious seems to be responsible for evaluating what we see and hear and what we remember.

The unconscious mind IS engaged, turning what is imaged on the back of the retina into objects and the sounds heard into speech. The conscious, takes all that, edits our experience and saves the highlights. In which case, why not cut to the chase and just live the highlights. Is there a way?

Ace SF writer Philip K Dick conceived the idea of missing out the expensive, and often largely boring parts of experience. In, We can remember it for you, wholesale. a travel agency supplied only the memories, and a few souvenirs, of pricey tourist jaunts to Mars.

Now back in the early days of TV, the supporters of radio liked to say that the pictures, on radio, were better. Listening or reading a well written narrative invokes pictures in the head. And I'm remind that those first, text only, computer games were pretty engaging.

The data rate of reading is very close to the measured data rate of consciousness. But during reading the experience is subtly different. Watching a movie, or in real life, the unconscious mind reduces a wealth of audio visual events to a narrative that the conscious can follow. When reading the conscious induces mental images which illustrate the narrative internally.

In reading too, part of the unconscious IS engaged, first taking the printed word and converting it to an internal voice. This seems much like the voice of conscious, that internal narrative that produces a commentary on all the richest parts of actual experience.

So the message is, don’t waste your money on HDTV. A writer sat down, and dreamed up a story, it’s been filmed, distributed and shown on your TV. Then, assuming it turns out to be memorable, your brain converts it back to a narrative, and finally to a set of memories,

Now let’s face it, you could have got there sooner and cheaper by buying the book, and the book would last longer.

The User Illusion


  1. Does this mean that once they can implant memories, that'll be the death of the book?

  2. > Tests have shown that the conscious experience
    > runs at little better than 20 bits per second.
    I've been in the bath, which normally leads to thinking, and this time it led to thinking about this statement. I was highly suspect of such a slow data-rate from the get go, as, lying in the bath I could see all the fitments, hear the taps dripping, etc etc, and much of this was concious (though it might be argued that the idea that I'm *seeing* all this stuff at once, is an illusion, and that really I percieve it unconciously, and only conciously percieve a small bit).
    But, 20 bits a second is really very, very low. Human beings can perform amazing feats, like identifying one object by touch, from a bag of objects, after only touching a corner of it (next time you're digging around for something in a bag, consider how much data you are processing, and how amazing it is that you can brush a fingertip on any part of the thing, and go "Ah ha! there it is!"
    Driving is amazing too, requiring you to be aware of very many things, reading many signs, spotting dangers, the curve of the road, etc etc etc. I think just reading a road-sign as it flashes past probably requires more than 20 bps.
    So, I have invented a thought experiment. Imagine that a human being is sat before a bank of one hudred small lights. All the lights are off. When one flashes, the human (hereafter 'it') merely has to shout out "A light is flashing!". I think any human could respond in well under a second, but logically each light counts as one bit of data.
    You could say "the human treats the entire light-board as 1 bit, and just responds when there is movement in its visual field." But, I would think that most people could quickly be trained to all out co-ordinates for a specific light "A5!" "G9!" like battleships.
    I think the truth may be that we are designed to perform some specific tasks, and that for those tasks (mostly eating and getting laid) we support incredibly high data rates, probably much higher than HDTV. However, for other tasks that we are not designed for, we support only very low data-rates.

    There is the interesting question here of what is concious, and what isn't? When does the performance of a task count as 'unconcious'? This strikes me as being a shades-of-grey think, not black and white.

  3. Cool post Terry! I like the way this is laid out as an argument for reading books to generate one's own images and memories of the ext rather than relying on the successive filters of the entertainment industry.

  4. Well I read your blog but I don't remember a thing about it! Not sure why? Still, I thought I'd post a message anyway cause that's what I'm like.