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The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) Paperback – August 1, 1999

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Press Science
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (August 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140230122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140230123
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The "user illusion" in computing is the desktop graphical user interface (GUI): the friendly, comprehensible illusion presented to the user to conceal all the bouncing bits and bytes that do the actual work. Tor Nørretranders writes that "our consciousness is a user illusion for ourselves and the world ... one's very own map of oneself and one's possibilities of intervening in the world." Much of Nørretranders' evidence comes from comparing the wide bandwidth of experience to the narrow bandwidth of consciousness, and from examining how much of our brain function is never consciously acknowledged. Although slightly out of date (the book was written in 1991; it was a bestseller in Europe), The User Illusion has been well translated and gives a refreshing, non-Anglophone take on a problem that is not likely to go away anytime soon. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Nirretranders declares: "Consciousness is a fraud." The realm of the subconsciousAthe "Me"Ais infinitely richer and must be cultivated if we are to experience the full sensation of reality. A best seller in the author's native Denmark, this book weaves together concepts from mathematics, computer science, neurology, and psychology.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I read the first two whole sections wondering, is this book going to begin.
Dr. Jamie Fettig
This book is very good insofar as it compiles some of the more interesting research from several different fields and neatly summarizes it for the lay reader.
It would appear that consciousness does not fit into formal Aristotelian logic's boundaries (otherwise known as science) which is, really, no great loss.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

152 of 159 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on May 2, 2000
Format: Paperback
I'm a big fan of the recent books attempting to explain consciousness: Dennett, the Churchlands, Owen Flannagan, Damasio, Edleman, Crick, Calvin, and so on. "The User Illusion" is unique among this crowd in two ways. First, it builds from a broader base of support, in information theory and thermodynamics. Second, it does not focus on the brain, but on the experience of consciousness. This seems at first to be a weakness, but it turns out to be a strength because what the author attempts to explain is how the experience of consciousness relates to the reality around us.
In this book, a number of different lines of evidence converge on the profoundly scientific but uncomfortably counter-intuitive conclusion that conscious awareness is an extremely narrow bandwidth simulation used to help create a useful illusion of an "I" who sees all , knows all, and can explain all.
Yet the mental processes actually driving our behavior are (and need to be) far more vast and process a rich tapestry of information around us that conscious awareness cannot comprehend without highly structuring it first. So the old notion of an "unconscious mind" is not wrong because we have no "unconscious," but because our entire mind is unconscious, with a tiny but critical feature of being able to observe and explain itself, as if an outside observer.
This fits so well with the social psychological self-perception research, and recent research into the perception of pain and other sensations, that it has a striking ring of truth about it.
This does lead to some difficult conceptual problems.
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96 of 102 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 21, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderful book translated from the Danish by Jonathan Sydenham, written more or less from a quantum physicist's point of view by a science journalist, but very readable, marred slightly by a Western bias.

One of the things learned here is that it takes half a second for our consciousness to be aware of what we're doing. We don't notice this time lag because the mind back-peddles and makes it appear that we are on sync. The mind must backtrack so that our system will know when in real time an event took place. Reactions to things like removing a hand from a hot stove occur faster than our consciousness has time to be aware. So the mind just reconstructs the event and there is the illusion that we were aware in real time. We weren't.

On page 256 is the example of a bicycle accident which happens too fast for the "I" to make a decision. The decision is made for the "I." So, is the "I" of consciousness really in charge or is that an illusion? The book's title gives Norretranders's opinion. I tend to agree. This is similar to the Buddhist idea that the ego-I of consciousness is an illusion.

Norretranders makes a distinction between the "I" that is conscious and has a short bandwidth of perhaps 16 bits and the "Me" that is nonconscious and has a bandwidth of millions of bits. The "I" thinks it is in charge, but all it has is a slow-moving veto. On pages 268-269 Norretranders talks about how to get Self 2 (corresponds to the Me) "to unfold its talents." One method is to overload the "I" so that the "Me" is allowed to come to the fore. Give it "so many things to attend to that it no longer has time to worry" or "veto." Then the inner Me comes forward and plays beautiful music, etc. Similarly, we could say that the use of mantra, e.g.
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52 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Mortimer Duke on September 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book demonstrates first hand the difficulty of attempting singlehandedly to come to a "solution" to consciousness by merging several disciplines. I was amazed at the author's quick acceptance of certain interpretations of cognitive psychological experiments. For example, take Miller's experiments on the magic number 7 (plus or minus 2). Nrretranders interprets this and other like minded experiments that measure cognitive capacity to mean that we have a limit of what we can experience consciously of somewhere between 1 and 40 "bits" (and most likely around 16 "bits"). Now, if you read the literature carefully, and if you use some common sense, you will find out two things. First of all, there is the widespread problem of memory that has never been dealt with satisfactorily. There is an inherent problem with trying to measure the contents of consciousness with some kind of report from the subject -- they will always be reporting on their memory of the event, and not the event itself. Since it is the contents of phenomenological consciousness that we care about (and not the total processing, conscious and unconscious), it may be unknowable what the precise contents of consciousness are at a given moment, at least using current techniques.
There is also a second and more damaging critique of Nrretranders' calculations of the number of "bits" available to consciousness. That is this: Is one unit of information about the perceptual stream only a single bit? Take for example the percept of seeing a full color photograph. What are you conscious of when you see it? In Nrretranders' estimation, only a couple of things at a time -- say the redness of a shirt, the expression of a face, etc.
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