Yesterday Colum took me to task, for him a bandwidth of 20 bits per second seems too slow for consciousness. These numbers are quoted in The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders, and were established nearly 60 years ago. In fact, several different figures are quoted, and for some tasks the consciousness did even worse. The task of proof reading, for example, is performed at 18 BPS (bits per second), while piano playing is done at 23 BPS. It seems possible that some jobs lend themselves to being ‘automated’, as it were, and are speeded by well practiced, unconscious skills. On the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words there are some more diagrams, and further notes here.
It is important to consider only tasks that MUST be performed consciously. Many activities, like driving and changing gear, become so practiced that the consciousness does not need to participate. Driving is quite different in the early stages, those first attempts at clutch and brake control were much harder, took longer and took up all of the resources of the conscious. Once the skill is learned most of the donkey work is delegated to the unconscious. Once you’ve learned to drive you can drive AND listen to the radio. The conscious has been freed up for other things.
It’s also worth remembering that in the case of emergency those practiced unconscious reflexes are in charge. They must be, not only is the conscious limited in capacity, or bandwidth, it’s also lagging behind the unconscious in time, and way behind reality.
Experiments described here seem to show that the conscious lags behind perception by around half a second. We might expect some delays while objects in the field of view are evaluated and decisions are made, but consciousness, whatever it is, even lags behind when everything that is going on is internal, in our heads.
What this means is that any decision we might make is not revealed to the consciousness until around half a second after we’ve decided to do it. The decision takes place, and conscious recognition of the decision takes place around 500mS later.
This doesn’t mean that we are not creatures of free will, just that our recognition of it lags behind by around half a second. But we’ve grown accustomed to it, our unconscious mind works much faster, so it’s the unconscious that drives the car, thank goodness, the conscious just can’t keep up.
What we call consciousness, just seems to be a recognition of what we have decided, it doesn’t seem to be an essential part of the process.
In my rather facetious attack on HDTV, I intentionally left out a key point. The actual experience of reality, even the reality of watching a movie, is very different to our memories. Memories, no matter how cherished, can’t equal the richness of the actual experience. The conscious, when editing and storing our memories must leave out much of the experience. What is felt during the actual deed, as it’s happening, will be more intense than anything we can possibly recall.
The richness of the actual experience are what those 20 million bits per second of HDTV are trying to reproduce.
So is the conscious involved in editing and laying down memories? I think it must be, massive amounts of information, events that happen to us are edited out and lost. Why should they be remembered? All the automatic learned skills that we use, day to day, serve no useful purpose by being recalled. What took place on the journey, road conditions, stops for petrol, etc are rarely worth memory space once you've claimed your expenses. If, on the other hand, you stop for petrol and in doing so meet the love of your life, you’ll remember it for ever. But, it is only in retrospect that the true importance of an event can be recognised. If that love turns out only to be a passing fancy, over a longer time that recollection too may fade.
This is what Daniel Dennett describes as the Orwellian model, described here, where history, in our memories, is re-written in the light of current events and priorities.
Intentionally editing memories, BTW, which can mean just removing painful ones, as in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, seems to be getting a little closer, as related here.