As mentioned in an earlier post, modern research confirms that our bodies take in and process dramatically more information than we ever become consciously aware of.  One implication of this, as I mentioned in the comments to that post, is that what we perceive as “raw,” “actual” experience is in fact data that has been pre-filtered and massaged, based upon experience we personally have had and experience that our ancestors had that is now hard-wired into our subconscious.

Again, a brief quote from Norretranders to kick off the discussion:

“We experience not the raw sensory data but a simulation of them.  The simulation of our sensory experiences is a hypothesis about reality.  This simulation is what we experience.   We do not experience things themselves.  We sense them.  We do not experience the sensation.  We experience the simulation of the sensation.

“This view involves a very far-reaching assertion: What we experience directly is an illusion, which presents interpreted data as if they were raw.  It is this illusion that is the core of consciousness: the world experienced in a meaningful, interpreted way.”

“Why do we not merely experience what we sense?  Because we sense far too much, millions of bits a second.  We experience only a fraction of what we sense—namely, the fraction that makes sense in the context.”

Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion at 289 (1991).

The implications of this research are astounding.  Let’s mention a few:

1. What’s really there? Plainly, humans have certain frames of reference that vary relatively little from person to person.  But frames and filters do differ, and one cannot be certain that someone else is seeing what you are seeing even if you are both looking at precisely the same thing.

Lawyers know that multiple eye witnesses’ recollections often differ dramatically from each other, as well as with other data recovered from an accident scene.  The issue is not just that some people are better than others at recollection.  No doubt that is true.  Yet more basically, each person sees something based upon both inherited and personal filters of which they are mostly unaware, and which necessarily prejudge raw sensory data before it ever reaches consciousness.  No wonder three eye witnesses can be so sure that their recollection is correct.  It may be, and often is – for them.

2. Who is right? That’s a humbling question, isn’t it?  If it isn’t, I suggest it should be.  We may each question whether our individual filters and frames may be getting in the way of seeing data in a different way.  Although we will never be able to become aware of the numerous layers of filtering applied by our subconscious, at least we may more humbly recognize that our beliefs about the world around us may not have the certainty and solidity we thought.

3.  “Point of view” is more literally correct that anyone thought. We acknowledge in everyday discussion that different people have different “points of view.”  But we fail to appreciate the full nature of those three words.  “Point”?  Yes, ultimately, conscious thought is a mere tip of a big iceberg, a point – no more and no less.  “Of view”?  Yes, the “point” of consciousness reached by any person at any particular moment is ultimately derived from (i.e., “of”) a “view” infinitely larger, processed by subconscious mechanisms before it ever reaches the conscious self.

4. The “real” world is overwhelmingly, astoundingly rich. One of Norretranders’ repeated themes in The User Illusion is that consciousness struggles to dismiss information.  What’s “really out there” is almost infinitely richer than anything we can wrap our conscious minds around. That is, as I reflect on it, a remarkably life-affirming, optimistic thought.

5. We do process vastly more data that we’re aware of, we use it subconsciously, and we may be able to use this insight to be better thinking machines. Although the conscious mind does not register all of the vast data our senses take in, our broader thinking processes – what Norretranders calls “Me” (as opposed to the conscious “I”) is processing, responding to, making decisions about, and discarding vast amounts of “experience” each moment.  To the extent we can find ways to get “I” to trust “Me” – a concept I’ll explore further as we discuss consciousness more – we can take ever greater advantage of the vast thinking system that resides below conscious thought.  Again, an optimistic notion.

So, what are you thinking about all of this?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.