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Book Commentary on The User Illusion: Cutting Consiousness Down to Size

Rebecca Pisciotta's picture

In his book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size Danish science journalist Tor Norretranders presents a scientifically sound and intellectually stimulating theory of conscious experience. “The user illusion” refers to a computer users idea of how the computer works based on how they interact with it. The bits and bytes are concealed by a largely metaphorical, extremely simplified, and not necessarily accurate illusion. Norretranders central thesis is that consciousness is our user illusion of ourselves. Consciousness arises after much information has been discarded. Conscious experience is a manageable distillation, essence, of our extremely rich raw experience. The User Illusion is incredibly readable in spite of its plethora of references. Norretranders pulls from innumerable sources, most notably Gödel, Libet, and Shannon. He integrates a wide array of prior research, tying together ideas from information theory, thermodynamics, physics, psychology, and philosophy to substantiate his theory; this is indeed the strongest aspect of the book.

Norretranders builds his theory of consciousness on the tenants of information theory. He makes sure the reader understands the basics before he applies them to his broader claims. The take home message is the notion of information and exformation. Exformation is discarded information. Norretrander uses the example of grocery shopping, among others. At the register the prices of the individual items are summed, it is this number, the total, that we are interested in. The sum is useful to us, it tells us how much money to take out of our wallet, the individual prices are not, they are irrelevant once we obtain the total. The author then extrapolates to consciousness, explaining that a huge amount of information must be discarded along the path from unconscious to conscious experience. While we all realize that our brain performs functions we are not always aware of (converting waves of light into a 3 dimensional picture) the book warns us not to underestimate the unconscious. He explains how the unconscious makes decisions based on information that our conscious does not have access to, and that the role of the conscious self may be solely to decide whether or not to execute the actions decided upon and suggested by the unconscious. An example for this is first impressions, it can take a split second to form an opinion about someone about whom we know next to nothing. Our unconscious may actually be gathering a lot of information about the person based on information (consciously inaccessible) gathered from subtle body language. He shows how the notion of exformation is influential for the individual as well as social experience. He takes the time necessary to clarify these issues which can be difficult to grasp for a reader who has no knowledge of the subject. He shows the breadth of the autonomy exercised by the unconscious with examples familiar to readers with some background knowledge, such as optical illusions.

A flaw presents itself in part two (of four), in which Norretranders dives into the body of evidence that forms the base of his theory. The evidence, he concludes, states that out of the eleven million bits of information that enter through our sensory modalities every second, only sixteen bits ever enter our consciousness. His confidently definitive manner of writing, as well as his lack of acknowledgment of any opposition adds to the startling nature of this claim. While it is true that only a fraction of the information we receive is ever available to our consciousness the numbers to which Norretranders continually refers back are misleading. The eleven million bits is arrived at by calculating the number of neurons leading from our sensory organs to our brain, which represents the maximum amount of information we can receive from the outside. The number sixteen is calculated from various experiments that determine the information transmitting capacity of different cognitive functions. This is determined for example by attributing a bit value to a letter (based on the fact that it is one of a possible 26) and calculating how many words (therefore letters) a person can read per second. Both methods of determining bit capacity are valid, but to compare them is to compare apples and oranges. To make a valid comparison between sensory and conscious capacities Norretranders would need to be able to either compute the number of neurons involved in conscious brain activity, or the total informational bit capacity of our sensory experience. The flaw is methodological, and does not weaken his theory as a whole. But his obscurity in this matter is disappointing when he is able to be so lucid throughout the rest of the book.

There is, astonishingly, only one other area in which The User Illusion is noticeably sub par. Once Norretranders introduces the reader to his theory of consciousness he attempts to integrate it into an (over) abundance of ideas, just to mention a few: the Gaia theory, communism, market theory, straight lines, constructionism, emergence, chaos, computation, boundaries, nuclear weapons, paradoxes, and length. Each of these ideas are introduced, and skimmed over, in part four. The last section of the book is scattered, the topics addressed lack coherence and depth, and it is difficult to see how some are even relevant (such as his Gaia theory tangent). Part four contrasts parts two and three in which Norretranders stretches to apply his theory to unanticipated topics with a rewarding result.

One intriguing idea that I found particularly notable is a surprisingly insightful connection the author draws between the unconscious-conscious dynamic, and the central doctrines of Judaism and Christianity in chapter nine. Judaism chastises and rewards individuals based on their actions, whereas Christianity judges the individual based on their actions as well as their thoughts and urges. If the unconscious is responsible for producing the urge to action, and we are consciously only able to decide whether or not to follow through on the urges, then Christianity is judging the individual based on thoughts/urges over which they have no voluntary control. This is another example of Norretranders ability to pull ideas from various fields of thought, synthesize them, and come up with a novel and thought provoking conclusion. By breaking the book up into four parts Norretranders is able to set up, explain, and elaborate on his theory in a segmented yet sequential manner; which is useful to the reader when tackling a book of this size. Though it is slightly out of date, having been written in 1991, his ideas fit well with current research, and the discussions of this semester, on the nature of sensory perception, such as vision and pain. The User Illusion presents a worthwhile theory of conscious experience that is exceptionally integrative, thoughtful, and well supported


Norretranders, T., The User Illusion: Cutting Consicousness Down to Size, Penguin Books, New York, 1992


Serendip Visitor's picture

Thank you for the inforation.

I am going to purchase this book.

Mark C's picture

simple language

>Norretranders builds his theory of consciousness on the tenants of information theory
Hi Rebecca, perhaps you meant:
"Norretranders builds his theory of consciousness on the tenets of information theory"?