The User Illusion

Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

By: Tor Norretranders

Published: 1991

Read: 2017


Drawing on physics, information theory, communication theory and evolutionary psychology, the central point of this book is that consciousness represents only a very small fraction of our ability to process information.

We sense, compress, process and simulate information before we experience anything consciously. Our conscious bandwidth is extremely narrow and the highly compressed version of events that we consciously experience lags the real world by at least half a second.

Among many other things, this book explores our ability to understand and predict conscious action, what are the implications for free will, and the interactions between conscious and non-conscious parts of the brain.

Worth Reading:

This book is wildly ambitious and covers a lot of ground. It is dense and relies on a ton of scientific research and complicated theories, while at the same time making bold, unsupported speculative claims. Written in 1991, it seems, surprisingly, rarely outdated.

The book made me question the few things I thought I understood about the workings of the brain/mind and realize how little we know about even the most basic questions.

The author doesn’t try to explain how consciousness comes about, other than arguing that simple rules (for example, cognitive processes within the non-conscious brain) can lead to complex conscious behavior in time. An argument similar to how complexity emerges generally. Consciousness emerges over time as parts of a system interact based on simple rules.

In order to understand consciousness as a system and predict what happens next, the usual limitations to complex systems are noted: you need to know the initial conditions of the system, the rules governing the system (if any) and all the information that has gone in and that has been discarded over time. This means that the computational costs to understanding a complex system are very high. Sometimes it’s impossible to perform relevant calculations because the systems are not finite.

There is an interesting argument on the dangers of society becoming increasingly linear. Meaning, people are presented with more and more compressed, linear information that needs to be unpacked and less exposure to raw sensory non-linear stimuli (nature, etc.). This may lead to people operating on lower bandwidths, stress and sensory deprivation.

The book ends with some observations about the sublime (balancing the conscious and the non-conscious) and simply accepting that the “I” may not be conscious of everything out there, but the “Me” is much closer to it (and therefore so are you). This part of the book was fun to read, but not always completely convincing.

Practical Takeaways:

  • Negative free will (or veto power): we can control our actions, not our urges.
    • Limited control over non-conscious urges and desires.
      • They “arise” before consciousness kicks in.
    • Exercise control by consciously saying yes or not to urges.
      • Exercise control consciously by saying saying yes or no to urges.
      • [But what then triggers the urge to say yes or no, etc., etc.]
    • Be concerned with what you do, not with what you feel like doing.
      • Silver Rule: what you don’t like, don’t do to others.
      • Golden Rule: what you like, do to others.
  • Consciousness lags behind the real world.
    • Stimulus -> simulation -> perception / experience.
    • Anything you are aware of has already been processed, compressed and simulated.
    • We only experience a hypothesis of reality (an illusion).
  • Flow: interplay between conscious and non-conscious parts of the brain.
    • Non-conscious: execute a consciously learned skill.
    • Conscious: don’t get in the way of the non-conscious (no veto, interference).
  • Understanding complex systems is difficult and costly.
    • Need to know the laws that govern the system.
    • Need to know precise starting conditions.
    • Need to simulate the system to understand what happened in the past.
      • No single causes, just complex history.
    • Still difficult to predict what may emerge going forward.
      • Small differences in starting conditions have exponential consequences over time.
    • Very difficult to create something that needs to behave in a predictable or as intended manner.

Key Concepts:


  • Entropy is a measure of the degree of order/disorder in a system.
  • The entropy in a system increases irreversibly in time.
    • We can’t put an egg back together.
  • As entropy increases, the amount of disorder increases.

Information theory:

  • As the amount of entropy/disorder increases, more information is needed to describe a system.
    • A sequence of 100 random numbers is more difficult to describe than a sequence of 100 zeroes.
  • Information is directly linked with entropy.
    • Similarly a measure of randomness/disorder.
    • A measure of how surprised we are.
      • There is more surprise in randomness than in order.

Communication theory:

  • Process of transferring information (communication) happens by way of discarding information.
    • Sender compresses a large quantity of information.
      • For instance, an experience.
    • Into a small quantity.
      • For instance, words.
    • Which is transferred and unpacked by the recipient.
      • Into a larger amount of information.
  • The complexity of a message is a measure of how much information has been discarded.


  • Every second, we receive millions of bits of information.
  • We can only consciously process about 20-50 bits per second.
    • Roughly, different researchers get to different numbers…
  • Much of the brain’s information processing therefor happens non-consciously.
    • We are unaware of the stimuli and the cognitive processes operating on them.
    • As well as the actions subsequently taken, as demonstrated by subliminal messages.
  • What we become aware of, has typically already been processed by the brain.
    • The brain discards millions of bits and compresses them into 20-50 in about 0.5 seconds.
    • The time it takes for us to become aware of something.
  • Consciousness lags behind the “real world”.
    • Because consciousness lags behind, we can’t consciously initiate an action.
    • We can only decide that an action should not be carried out.
    • We can control our actions, but not our urges.
  • We don’t experience raw sensory data, only a simulation of them.
    • We only experience a hypothesis about reality – an illusion.
  • In 0.5 seconds, many different sensory inputs are compressed, linked, synchronized and then experienced.
    • With the conscious experience somehow allocated back in time to the original time of the sensory inputs.
    • Sensation -> simulation -> experience. 

Consciousness and non-consciousness:

  • The conscious and non-conscious interact within the same person:
    • Conscious part of a person = I.
    • Non-conscious part = Me.
  • Many different ways in which the I and Me interact.
    • You need the I to learn a skill [build conscious knowledge].
    • You need the the Me to execute. [use non-conscious knowhow]. 

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