What if our consciousness lies?  The answers are disturbing, liberating, and ultimately critically important to those seeking to maximize their personal potential.

This post will begin an exploration of some of what brain researchers now know about consciousness – and what modern research means to the conscious “I” who thinks he or she is in charge.

Modern research has established that, each moment, we are consciously aware of only a minute amount of the data that our bodies gather and process.  The “I” who perceives, and the subjects of the I’s perceptions, are only the tip of an enormous amount of data processing and thought, most of which never bubbles up to consciousness.

If you would like to have your mind bent in fascinating and troubling ways, read Tor Norretranders’ The User Illusion.  That book is the best summary and exploration I have found of contemporary research into human consciousness.  The findings are often hard to believe, and always hard to incorporate into one’s patterns of behavior, but well worth the effort.

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, researchers now believe that each second, the human body gathers and processes well over a million bits of information.  (A bit is a basic unit of binary, yes/no, storable information.) Yet studies have demonstrated that human consciousness can process only between 10 and 40 bits per second.  This means that an enormous amount of sorting, analysis, and prioritization has occurred subconsciously before some minute portion of sensory data becomes available to our momentary consciousness.  As Norretranders puts it in typically jaw-dropping prose:

The thesis is extremely simple, at least when expressed in numbers. We can measure how much information enters through the senses. We do so simply by counting how many receptors each sensory organ possesses: how many visual cells the eye has, how many sensitive points the skin has, how many taste buds the tongue has. Then we can calculate how many nerve connections send signals to the brain, and how many signals each connection sends a second.

The numbers are vast. The eye sends at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms.

But we experience far less: Consciousness processes far fewer bits.  Over the decades, scientists have measured how much information the human consciousness can take in per second. This has been done in all kinds of ways, one of which is by measuring how many linguistic bits we can process when we read or listen. But language is not the only aspect studied. The ability to see and distinguish flashes of light, sense stimuli to the skin, tell different smells apart, and much more besides can be used in calculating that we consciously perceive about forty bits a second with our consciousness. A figure that may even be exaggerated. Our sensory perception admits millions of bits a second; consciousness two score. The flow of information, measured in bits per second, is described as the bandwidth or capacity of consciousness. The bandwidth of consciousness is far lower than the bandwidth of our sensory perceptors.

Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion at 125-126 (1991).

Let me pause here, because this concept is so deep and counterintuitive.  I am not simply noting the obvious, that we are not aware of certain so-called autonomic processes, like the data monitoring and instruction processing necessary to keep our bodies breathing and hearts pumping.  The point is much more important and troubling.  The conscious mind is constrained by prior processing decisions that occur outside the realm of consciousness.  As powerful as consciousness is, it is profoundly limited. And it does not even ordinarily recognize it.  Again, Norretranders:

Precisely because from one instant to the next consciousness can switch from one object to another, it is not perceived as limited in its capacity. One moment you are aware of the lack of space in your shoes, the next moment of the expanding universe. Consciousness possesses peerless agility. But that does not change the fact that at any given moment you are not conscious of much at all.

Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion at 127 (1991).

The “subconscious” decision maker at issue here, furthermore, is not that roiling mass of urges that Freud described as having been pushed out of the realm of conscious thought.  (That’s a different issue: Freud was on to something, but his insights need to be reformulated in light of modern research.)  Instead, the notion is that what is consciously perceived is in fact only a minute amount of what the body is actually aware of and acts upon. What is passed along as conscious perception has been worked over by numerous decision-making processes subconsciously prior to that data being made available to the “I” who pretends to be in control.

Modern insights into consciousness have profound implications for anyone who wants to engage in continuous self-improvement and personal development.  I will explore some of those implications in posts to follow.  Stick with it, because this information is critically important to life’s best practices, achievement, success, learning, and creativity.