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150 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best explanations of conscious awareness so far
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...
Published on May 2, 2000 by Todd I. Stark

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49 of 60 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unsatisfying
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...
Published on September 17, 2001 by Mortimer Duke


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150 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best explanations of conscious awareness so far, May 2, 2000
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (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. A chapter is devoted to the odd result discovered by Benjamin Libet (also featured prominently in Dennett's Consciousness Explained, but not explained nearly so clearly there). Libet observed that the brain seems to prepare for a planned action a half second before we realize we have chosen to perform the action. This dramatically makes the author's point that human experience proceeds from sensing to interpreting teh sensation within a simulation of reality, to experiencing. If we accept that the brain has to create its own simulation in order for us to experience something, there's no reason why the simulation can't bias our perception of when we chose to act. So we act out of a larger, richer self, but experience ourselves as acting from a narrowly defined self-aware self with no real privileged insight into the mental processes behind it.
This may well be the best discussion of conscious awareness yet presented in a generally readable form. But it does have some glaring weaknesses. The author takes great pains to build this model of conscious awareness from the ground up, but then applies it in a brief and haphazard manner to all sorts of things that deserve much more thought, such as religion, hypnosis, dreams, and so on. Even with the few weaknesses, the case made for the author's view of conscious awareness is both compelling and useful for further discussions, because it is built on a solid scientific and mathematical foundation, and the author manages to remain within areas that are already well studied. It isn't clear whether the author's model makes many testable predictions beyond those made by the underlying theories of perception, but it does provide a larger explanatory framework that is at once sophisticated and comprehensible.
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93 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Human consciousness as a metaphor of the computer age, October 21, 2004
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (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., is effective as a meditation tool since it keeps the very verbal "I" occupied and allows the inner "Me" to come forward.

Norretranders believes along with Julian Jaynes that consciousness arrived during recorded history or at least sometime during the first millennium B.C. He also believes that the use of mirrors helped to develop that consciousness. He notes (page 320) that "The use of mirrors became widespread during the Renaissance" which he says is "characterized by the reappearance of consciousness." (Thus we have our Western bias.)

On the subject of the half-second delay in our conscious recognition of what is happening to us (discovered by Benjamin Libet): "If there were not half a second in which to synchronize the inputs, [from our senses] we might, as Libet puts it, experience a jitter in our perception of reality." (p 289)

In reference to the title metaphor, we find on page 291: "The user illusion, then, is the picture the user has of the machine" [ i.e., his body and brain] "...[I]t does not really matter whether this picture is accurate or complete, just as long as it is coherent and appropriate. It is better to have an incomplete, metaphorical picture of how the computer works than to have no picture at all."

On the 16-second bandwidth of consciousness: "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."

Norretranders believes that our religions reflect our level of consciousness. There is, he writes, "a preconscious phase" characterized by polytheistic religions; a socially conscious phase, characterized by religions like Judaism; and a personally conscious phase, of which "Protestantism is a pure cultivation." (from page 317)

I don't necessary buy this (nor his time table of consciousness: I believe that cats and other animals have a rudimentary consciousness, and more so did the australopithecine); nonetheless the idea that Christianity is a religion of consciousness because it says we have sinned in our hearts while Judaism, for example, is only concerned with actions, is an interesting, if perhaps trivia, idea. Norretranders notes later on that, in this, Christianity may be out of bounds since the half second delay means that our consciousness has no control over what the Me or our nonconscious selves may be thinking. We can't blame the I for the impulses of the Me since the I only has a veto, as it were, and can't initiate actions or thoughts.

This is an interesting schemata that he is drawing up, and like that of Freud it is clearly metaphorical and linguistic and not descriptive. Nonetheless, I think it has value in helping us to understand how our systems work.

On pages 319 and 320 we have consciousness arising before Christ and then being lost for the middle ages and then recurring again with the birth of the renaissance. I would wonder what Norretranders thought was happening at the time in e.g., China and India? I think his (and Jaynes's) time table is too recent and much, much too fast. If consciousness is a cultural manifestation of our evolutionary abilities-an "emergent property"-then I would prefer a cultural/evolutionary development that began around 100,000 years ago.

In the chapter entitled "On the Edge of Chaos" Norretranders cites Doyne Farmer and Aletta d'A. Belin as saying that "Life is a pattern in space and time rather than a material object (after all, atoms keep getting replaced)..." This is profound.

Consciousness is restricting. It discards information from the environment and returns a distilled essence. We miss a lot because there is no evolutionary necessity that we be aware of what our Me experiences. The vast amount of information would only confuse us, or at least make us less efficient. So consciousness is the veil of illusion that yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. talk about. The user illusion is maya.
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49 of 60 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unsatisfying, September 17, 2001
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (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. And there is of course evidence that you do not apprehend (or commit to memory, anyway) a large majority of the information that enters the senses. But this does not account for the richness of the percept, for example, of "the expression of a face". Is this expression one bit? Or is it the summary of hundreds of complex apprehension, recognition, and association bits of information? What does it mean for something as complex as consciously perceiving a face to be reduced to a single bit of information?
The problem with this book, as with many of the books to come out recently on the topic of consciousness, is that the author has spelled out in a clear thesis what consciousness is, and how it can be characterized in such a way so that it will be easily understandable. And of course, that is what all good scientific theories strive to do -- reduce complex phenomena to something that is manageable and predictable. However, there is a failing here in that so much of the description and experience of consciousness has been lost by estimating how many bits it consists of. Consciousness is a notoriously changing and nebulous thing. Things can be nearly conscious, and percepts and ideas can lie on the fringe of consciousness -- this much has been well accepted since the time of William James. There is no clearly defined, perfectly stable box of consciousness, within which 16-40 bits of information reside.
The thesis is an interesting one. But the support for it is not there. Every interested person in this topic seems to have his or her favorite simplification of what consciousness is (40hz activity in the brain, a winner-take-all network, a global workspace, and now a user illusion). I suspect the answer that is needed to really satisfy as a useful scientific theory will end up to be more complex and involved than any of these simplifications. Each has a certain draw to it, but it becomes confusing when you get scraps of the puzzle that each claim to contain the entire picture. Final analysis: there is no convincing reason to believe this view of consciousness over any other one, and the lack of rigerous scholarship (i.e. in-depth analysis of the research) discourages me from looking closer in this direction.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Unique, European, Composite View of Human Consciousness, August 19, 2000
By 
Earl Dennis (San Francisco, California United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
I agree with the one reviewer who says this is one of the best explanatory efforts regarding consciousness. I've perused quite a few offerings on this topic and Norretranders' interpretation comes pretty close to hitting home. One other reviewer suggests all Norretranders has done is regurgitate the work of others and repackage it. Ahem! that's about what a good science writer is supposed to do. The author isn't a neurobiological researcher, he's a science writer. Unlike a full blown scientist, Norretranders can take literary liberties to try and describe what may not in fact lend itself easily to description. He has no theory to sell, just the thesis that what we generally perceive as 'self' isn't quite what we envision it to be. It is true that this is a well trodden path, as seen in the thought of Kant, James, Lewis Thomas, Edelman, and Dennett, to name a few; it's just that Norretranders does a more artful job of describing a phenomenon that is undoubtedly understood better by others. He syncretizes the extant body of knowledge more delicately than his epistemological superiors in this subject; or perhaps it's his Scandanavian mode of expression. There's something about this book that made the Edelmans, Damasios, etc., of the bio-cognitive milieu more comprehendable. Consciousness is a unitary experience and at the same time a highly complex, composite event. Like many contradictions it does not lend itself readily to the expositor's voice. Norretranders does the topic honorable justice in my opinion.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Way ahead of its time, January 10, 2002
By 
Larry Kaplan (Los Altos, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
First, I must agree that the first hundred pages are tough going and the last chapters may get too metaphysical, but the central theme of the book that our brain presents us with a user interface much like a computer does -- delayed in time, compressed, summarized, edited, incomplete -- has not been discounted in the ten years since the book was written. In fact, more and more experiments reveal the truth of this view. In a December 2001 Nature letter (Nature 414, 302 - 305, Illusory perceptions of space and time preserve cross-saccadic perceptual continuity), another experiment showing that our unconscious gives us delayed and edited information confirms that we exist in a User Illusion. Many of our behaviors, phobias, neuroses, psychoses, and human interactions can be analyzed in terms of this powerful illusion. And learning to understand and program our unconscious is the purpose of life.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting, May 24, 1998
By A Customer
This book starts out with eye-opening facts about the history of information theory and its relation to consciousness. This first section takes some concentration to get through, but it's necessary for the next section that explains the nature of consciousness itself. This part of the book is utterly fascinating and often mind-blowing. You'll be shocked to find out how your mind works, and how you previously and certainly weren't aware that it worked like THAT! The last section is disappointing, though, in that the author makes conclusions based on the flimsiest of evidence regarding the evolutionary history of human consciousness. It gets almost gobbledygooky new-agey. But the first parts of the book are founded on hard-won research, and those parts alone (if you haven't read about the original research elsewhere) are worth the price of the book many times over.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind opening, May 25, 2001
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
The User Illusion is easily one of the best books I have come across in quite some time. It leaves you seeing the world very differently, realizing you don't have control over nearly as much as you think you do.
The first hundred (or so) pages of the book don't mention conciousness at all. Instead they take you through a tour of how different fields deal with the notions of information, complexity and order. These are all woven together as the discussion of how our conciousness works begins.
As the book progresses the author spends some time on philosophical issues, which seems to come out of left field but are actually very interesting. For example, he spends some time look at how the current views of conciousness apply to religion.
Other reviews have mentioned that the material in this book is nothing new. Perhaps this is true. If you have done other reading in this area this book may be of less interest. However, if you're new to this area (as I was), this book provides a very thorough foundation of current thought.
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30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but uneven, December 14, 2001
By 
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
The thesis is fascinating, and really got me (oops.. *I*) thinking about the role of conscious thought vs. non-conscious action in my own experience: all the places my conscious mind wanders while I'm (somehow) playing a familiar (but not memorized) piece on the piano, or while driving through traffic to the grocery store.
The analysis depends crucially on scientific experiments by Benjamin Libet, whose methodology may be open to criticism. Nørretranders defends the methodology (and I believe it) but the arguments are far from air-tight.
I have long believed that consciousness is an illusion, a subjective property that can potentially emerge (and be useful -- even adaptive) in any sophisticated information processing system. I do not, however, buy the argument of Jaynes that consciousness is only a few thousand years old (and may have disappeared in the Middle Ages).
This view of consciousness is of course problematic for the notion of free will. If my brain initiates a movement half a second before I consciously "decide" to move, how can *I* be in control of myself? Nørretranders tries to rescue free will with a conscious "veto". The connection he makes to Christian vs. Jewish theology here is interesting but unconvincing -- but then, I'm an determinist/atheist.
My biggest complaint: did Nørretranders have to meet a page quota? Part one, about thermodynamics, computation, and information theory introduces some requisite concepts, but they drag on too long. I would prefer that he clearly explain the thesis and some if its ramifications up front; THEN, take guide us through some of the prerequisites, periodically tying them back to the thesis. Also, most of part four was irrelevant. Stop reading after chapter 12 and skip to the last subsection of chapter 16.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent overview of many fields..., October 4, 2000
By 
Zentao (Toronto, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
Tor has compiled an excellent reference for further exploration into the mind-body "problem" and that nasty thing that just won't leave science alone, consciousness. The sections on the development of information theory and Libet's experimental work are worth the price of the book alone. Not that Tor's take on Libet's work is the "truth" since the experimental work on the half second of delay is rather thin.
It's interesting to note his descent into despair as he learns more. It would appear that consciousness does not fit into formal Aristotelian logic's boundaries (otherwise known as science) which is, really, no great loss.
I'd recommend further reading: Perlovsky and, if you can find it, Erich Jantsch's old book "Design for Evolution". Pelletier's "Towards a Science of the Consciousness" is also worth tracking down for some interesting studies done on Zen monks.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars today's Godel, Escher, Bach, December 28, 1998
By A Customer
An invaluable book analyzing consciousness from the prespective of information theory. Author unites physics, theory of computation & neuroscience through, still widely misunderstood, information theory. In a very clear, and at times entertaining language, the author delivers to the reader an epitome of exceptional quality. Beautiful and simple idea of discarding the information is fundamental to our understanding of the world and ourselves.
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The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (Penguin Press Science)
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