Transcript of EP 241 – Tor Nørretranders on the User Illusion of Consciousness

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Tor Nørretranders. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Tor Norretranders. Tor is a Danish science writer and he’s the author of more than 30 books, including the User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, which will be the starting point of today’s conversation. Welcome, Tor.

Tor: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Jim: Yes. I read this book for the first time probably around 2004, when I was an active researcher at the Santa Fe Institute after I retired from the business world. And even though it references the Santa Fe Institute several times, many times in the book, nobody there had ever heard of it. So I actually spread the word a fair bit and probably picked up a few sales, a little blip around 2005, when I told people, Hey, this is a book well worth reading.

And I think I sent Tor an email years ago when I was first starting my podcast saying, Hey, this is a book I wouldn’t mind talking about. And for whatever reason, the email didn’t get… I think I maybe sent it to your publisher or something. And finally got to you about recently and you responded and said, sure, let’s talk about it. So I reread it again. It was written in what, 1991, I think?

Tor: In Danish? Yes, yes.

Jim: And then translate into English sometime in the late ’90s?

Tor: Yeah, ’98. And the Penguin version is ’99, I think.

Jim: Cool. And there’s many books, 30 books. Not many have been translated into English. I was going down the list, one that caught my attention just because I’m interested in him as a person, was one called Einstein, Einstein. And I cut and pasted about a page and a half of it from Danish. I found a rogue PDF in Danish and put it in the Google Translate. It looked interesting, so if the opportunity ever comes up, you’d at least sell one copy if you got it translated into English.

Tor: The title Einstein, Einstein comes from an anecdote happening at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Einstein was sharing his office with Niels Bohr, who was visiting, the quantum physicist from Denmark. And Einstein’s doctor had told him that he could not buy tobacco any more because of the health. And so he sneaked into Bohr’s office and stole some tobacco right at the same time when Bohr was dictating to Abraham Pais, the Dutch physicist who tells this story. Bohr was dictating his next article. And he was standing at the window shouting, just like Bohr would do one word at the time, Einstein, Einstein, Einstein. And then he turns around and Einstein is there in the room trying to snatch his tobacco, and they’re sort of shocked by this.

Jim: That’s pretty funny. And of course Bohr and Einstein had some major disagreements too. But it would’ve been quite interesting to have been the fly on the wall for Einstein and Bohr to be sharing an office. I could imagine some of the conversations.

Tor: Must have been dramatic. One of the most popular books here in Scandinavia that I wrote back in 1985, that’s a long time ago, it was about the dialogue between Bohr and Einstein. And of course as a Dane I’m on Bohr’s side, basically. But I love Einstein also.

Jim: For my take, quantum foundations is one of my hobbies. I keep up on all the various theories of quantum foundations. I think they’re both wrong. One of the things about quantum foundations is nobody actually knows what the answer is and all you can do… Because none of the evidence is very good at distinguishing the various quantum foundation theories. Though I do say if I had to put a dollar down, I would put it down on the Bohn-De Broglie Pilot Wave Theory, which was one of the dozen or so still outstanding, still unrefuted quantum foundations. And pretty strongly against Bohr and the Copenhagen Interpretation. Also, we know for sure Einstein was wrong when he refused to accept non-locality. We now know, with no loopholes, that non-locality is true.

So anyway, that’s not our topic for today. Today’s topic is the User illusion, basically consciousness. And this is a continuation of our series on consciousness. In the past we’ve had guests including Christophe Koch, Bernard Bars, Anil Seth, Antonio DeMassio, Emory Brown, Yosha Bach, Ian McGilchrist and others. And so if you want to hear other episodes about consciousness and consciousness studies from a scientific point of view, go to the homepage at and search on consciousness. So let’s start. A book about consciousness, you always have to start with, when you say consciousness what do you mean?

Tor: Well, I mean very much the subjective, immediate experience of the world. That is, consciousness is not something you can measure, but something you can experience. It’s a tricky word, it’s a tricky concept. It’s about being aware that you are aware.

Jim: Now, being aware that you’re aware. So this is where it gets very tricky. At first, my head was not in the right place. Well, reading the books I had to recalibrate it, because aware of being aware is, I would use the term self-consciousness. Which as far as we know is, only a very limited number of animals, humans, chimps, maybe elephants, maybe orcas, a few others, have self-consciousness. While the other definition of consciousness, the sense of essentially being in your own movie and dealing with the world in the phenomenological way, most researchers now believe is very widespread in animals, at least since reptiles and maybe back before that.

And Gerald Edelman, another solid researcher on consciousness, used to make the distinction between primary consciousness, which he’d say things like the consciousness that we share with our dog, versus extended consciousness, which is somewhere in the line, much, much higher up on the evolutionary timeline and certainly includes humans, and may or may not include a few others. So maybe you could react to that distinction and your own usage of the term.

Tor: Well, of course, when I say being aware of being aware, as we know it, the reptile thing is more like the human thing. It’s a very important phenomenon that arise somewhere in the history of humans and maybe of primates. But that doesn’t exclude in any sense that there is some kind of awareness and some kind, of course, of knowledge of the outer world in many more creatures than just human beings.

Jim: I personally, at least, find it useful when I’m thinking about consciousness to say, does this attribute of consciousness apply to a dog or not? And if it does, it’s kind of primary consciousness, and if it doesn’t, it’s this other thing, this consciousness of being conscious. Because probably dogs do not get over the line. We know when a dog looks in the mirror, it tends to bark at the dog in the mirror. It has no idea that it’s itself. While an ape will eventually figure out that, oh, that’s me. And even an elephant probably can figure out, oh, that’s me. While a dog can’t. So I often use that as my test case.

Now, the title of the book is the User Illusion, which I thought was a very clever choice. Actually, I never heard the term in the software sense, but I did do a little research and it goes quite a ways back to Alan Kay and others at Xerox Park. It might be useful to tell us a little bit about the technical, software developer concept of User Illusion and what you were trying to point at with that term.

Tor: Many years ago there was this sort of conflict or fight between the paradigm of the IBM computer, the personal computer, and the Apple computer, with the graphical user interface. Around 1980, early ’80s, the personal computer would sort of list, in a very engineering style way, the content of what is on the computer, what are the available programs, what are the processes you are doing. And would not really try to help the user get an impression of what he’s doing.

On the other side, there was this small talk paradigm that Apple took from the rank Xerox Research Institute, which was of the other style, and Alan Kay, of course, was very central in this. And the other style was to say, we give the user an illusion of manipulating objects, which are not in any sense true objects, but are metaphors for what this guy is doing. Like you have a folder or a file, put it into a folder, you have a desktop, you have many things that are not really there in the computer, but are the way that you are used to deal with documents and information and so on.

And we give them an impression that they’re dealing with all these folders and desktops, not trying to give a precise idea of what’s going on in the computer, but rather a way of approaching the way they’re manipulating with the data in the computer. So it’s a way of helping the user. And it’s called an illusion because it is an illusion. Of course, when you look at it, the personal computer way of describing what’s going on inside it is also an illusion. Because at the very basic programming level of zeros and ones, it doesn’t look that way as it’s presented. But it doesn’t try to help. The user illusion is about trying to help the user by creating a myth and illusion that’s relevant for the situation, but it’s not accounting for what’s in there in the computer.

And, of course, the analogy that I then try to use and to create with this concept of the user illusion is that, our mind, the way we see the world, the image we have of the world, the concept we have of the world, the idea we have of the world, is not in any sense an attempt to reproduce or mirror the world out there, in a basic sense. It’s of creating a myth, an idea, an illusion that is relevant to the survival of the animal, the human being, having this conception of the world around him.

So the whole point which has been now, in these many years since the book was published, has been a main theme in understanding consciousness is that the mind is not an attempt to mimic the world. The mind is an approach to create a relevant myth of the world that will help the animal survive more. And the criterion is not if it’s exactly like the world, in whatever sense that would make. The criterion is, will it help the animal, in this case us, survive?

Jim: And of course, that’s exactly what we’d expect. If we take a Darwinian lens at evolution, evolution doesn’t care at all how accurate or fine-grained the cognitive model that an animal might use. The only thing it pays off on, does the inputs yield outputs in terms of reproduction? And I’ve always said, I shouldn’t say always said, once I started to learn a fair bit about consciousness, I concluded that consciousness is a clever hack, essentially. A clever trick that evolution found to be able to make quite high quality decisions at relatively low cost.

Though the cost is not actually all that low. I mean, we know the little old brain, about three pounds of wet sponge, consumes 20% of the energy, in the brain. And I did some rough calculations once that led me to believe that the various circuits that support consciousness, maybe 20 or 30% of that, maybe more, the total cost in terms of… And further, the genetic cost, the amount of information included in our genome to allow the emergence of consciousness also has to be substantial. And I’ve never seen any measures of it, but it can’t be cheap.

So consciousness would not have been preserved over several hundred million years, primary consciousness that is, unless it paid off in terms of survival. And it’s continued to be a trick that has gotten better and better and better until somehow the last ape, us, came up with one last innovation, I would argue, which is symbols and then language, which allowed consciousness to take off into a whole nother level.

Tor: Yeah. I think your way of putting it, the clever hack or the trick is a very fun way to convey the essence of the user illusion idea. It’s a clever way of dealing with things. And of course, the brain and its functions is so costly that it couldn’t be there if it didn’t work somehow. But then of course, there can be ways in which our conscious awareness also misleads us. And that will take a long time before that went extinct in the population. So we can be cheated by our idea of how we see the world.

Jim: Again, it will come down to the math of reproduction. Do the wrong inferences we get from consciousness outweigh the right ones? And for several hundred million years, the math seems to have worked. Now you brought up, it must been pretty early, because this, at the time you wrote the book, relatively early in the understanding of this, how narrow the bandwidth actually is in our consciousness. Why don’t we talk a little bit about that? You actually did a great job, considering especially in 1991, the input bandwidth rates and then the reductions that occurred down to consciousness. Why don’t you take us through that?

Tor: Yeah. I was very surprised that nobody was doing that at the time, actually. That nobody was looking at the mind and consciousness as things you could describe in terms of information and the physics of information and bandwidth, as you say. Bandwidth was not a very common word at that time. It’s become so since. And I was very surprised that nobody was interested in this, that nobody took an interest in measuring the basic properties of the human mind in terms of information theory.

And I was criticized a lot by people for not being serious about the depths of the human mind because I was coming in there saying, it’s so many bits running through per second and so on. People said, that’s not paying tribute to it. But my point, of course, is that if you’re interested in the design of furniture, you still need to know how much does this table weigh? What is the size of it? What is the color of it? And nobody had, in my impression, asked those questions at that time.

There were some studies done in the 1950s of much information people could consciously process, making distinctions. And there was also, in other places in the literature, people who tried to estimate how much information can go through our senses from our eyes to our brain, for instance. And I then tried to cover that literature and compare these numbers. And the basic result was very surprising and a little weird in a sense, because what it says is that the flux of information into the human brain, what we take in from the environment, is about 11 million bits per second.

And it’s mostly our vision, but also our hearing and our sensory apparatus, our smell and our taste. But the dominant thing is the visual part. 11 million bits per second is a lot, but then when you compare with what we are consciously aware of, these studies made show that it was on the order of 16 bits per second. So there’s a compression factor here of 1 million. 1 million times more bits go into our mind from the external world than what appears in our conscious awareness. And that seems very surprising, that we are not aware of most of what happens in our life, if you say, consciously aware.

On the other hand, it’s not surprising because there’s so much information coming into my eyes at any time, in your eyes at any time, that is simply not relevant to deal with. Like the ceiling is not falling down on me, the ceiling is not falling down on me. I mean if we went around noticing all the time that the ceiling was not falling down, that would be sort of tedious in the long run. So most of the visual information we take in is not that pertinent. But suddenly when there is a spider sitting up there in the ceiling, you want to see that immediately.

So we take in a lot of information, we ignore most of it. And basically that’s what consciousness is about. That is, throwing away most of the information that we take in, reducing down to something that it’s meaningful to be aware of. And most of the things in your environment is not meaningful to be aware of most of the time. But sometimes you acutely have to pay attention to something.

So consciousness is really a story of reduction, of compressing information. And when you say now, and here, you are compressing an enormous amount of information into this simple idea of, I’m here now. And one reason that was doable in the late ’80s, early ’90s, was that there had been huge progress in what you could call physics of information. Rolf Landauer at IBM was a leading physicist in this in the ’60s and ’70s, describing how of course information is a physical thing. And it’s subject to physical laws and you can study the physicality of information. And when you do that, you understand that consciousness is essentially the result of a huge throwaway or ignoring a lot of information.

Jim: I remember reading this when it first came out, the very surprising result in the late ’80s, the physics of information, isn’t actually about remembering, it’s about forgetting.

Tor: Yes. And there’s already an atmosphere of this forgetting stuff in what I’m saying here about that, consciousness is actually the result of forgetting, of throwing away information that you took into your organism. That chimed very nicely with this result from the Rolf Landauer tradition. And Charlie Bennett, his pupil or his colleague at IBM, they analyzed the Maxwell demon problem, which has been very famous for more than 100 years, and showed that the only way you could explain that problem was by observing the fact that when you throw away information, when you erase information, there’s a cost in that.

And my whole engagement with the subject area of this book actually started with an article by Rolf Landauer in the late ’80s in Nature, the scientific journal. Where he pointed out this very, very basic point that to transfer information from one place to another or one point in time to another, to communicate information, which is normally what we think is very difficult to do, that doesn’t really have any physical cost that is necessary. But to get rid of information, to erase information, is very expensive and always necessarily involves a cost.

And that was very surprising because you would think of, like you throw out information like you throw out garbage, or you have yesterday’s papers and you just throw them out and that’s trivial. But it’s not trivial. That’s a real physical event is when you erase information, not when you record it or move it to another place. And that was surprising. And the reason this was discovered was this Maxwell demon problem, which is a little technical but also very interesting.

Maxwell’s demon is about the fact that if you have some little clever guy who could sort the molecules in a cold room. And say we take all the fast-moving air molecules into one end of the room and all the slow-moving molecules into the other end of the room, you would have one end of the room becoming very hot and the other end becoming very cold. And you could put up some kind of wall in between and you have a temperature difference and then when you have a temperature difference, you can use it to do work for you. So out of nothing you could create the ability to make work. Which, suddenly you have this machine that can go on forever, because all it takes is the sorting of molecules into fast ones and slow ones.

This has been called Maxwell demon since the mid-1800s and people had tried to solve it in many ways and Charlie Bennett actually showed that the only way you could solve it was by observing and accepting the fact that to forget again all the molecules that he had been sorting, this demon would use an enormous amount of energy to forget, to erase. Because he had to measure every air molecule and then erase the molecules to measure the next ones. And that’s the reason you can’t do this. That’s the reason you cannot take energy out of cold air the way Maxwell’s demon would say.

Jim: Yeah, that was quite amazing actually. Because for a long time we thought that there was another answer to Maxwell’s demon, the Szilard argument. I will say, as a young physics major, I couldn’t get my head around that one. I couldn’t make the math work. I should have pursued it because I might have had a great result as an undergraduate. But I just let it be. I said, wait a minute, I don’t believe this. This doesn’t quite add up. It was one of those embarrassing aspects of physics that, at the end of the day, the physicists were saying, just ignore that Maxwell’s demon, I may not be able to exactly explain why it’s wrong. And then it was later in the late ’80s that they finally did nail it, but it was actually a very important result.

Tor: Yeah. And the book, the User Illusion, actually also starts with Maxwell and the Maxwell demon because in a sense, at a level of physics, this was the breakthrough that opened the floodgates for this analysis of what is the flow of information through human beings, which is what the book is about. And also, you may allow me to add that the motto of the book, the opening quote of the book, is from this guy James Clark Maxwell, who invented this demon. He was a Scottish physicist who was very famous for unifying electricity and magnetism into electromagnetism. And to his surprise, discovered that that also led him to understand what light was.

And Maxwell said at his deathbed to a friend, he said, “What is done by what is called myself, is, I feel, done by something greater than myself, in me.” This quote nicely sums up the approach to consciousness that this book takes, which is that it’s somehow, when we start studying consciousness, we understand that there’s a tricky relationship between what is done by what is called myself, and something greater in me that is doing the things. And this has nothing to do with some divine entity. This is just about that the person recognizes that he cannot account for or describe how his person solves this problem.

Jim: And of course, if we know that consciousness is only 16 bits, 50 bits, there’s various measures, no surprise that there’s a whole lot of information somewhere else within our envelope. And actually I thought that was the deepest idea in your book when I first read it, was this distinction between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. But you came up with a very clever name. I don’t know what it is in Danish, but in English it was translated as “I and me.” And I’ve never seen anybody else build that metaphor. And I thought it was actually quite brilliant. So maybe if you could talk a little bit about the conscious mind versus the unconscious mind and “I and me.”

Tor: Yes. Which in Danish is [foreign language 00:24:50], is very much the same as the English “I and me.” So that translation is very one-to-one, actually. I think Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, he also has this distinction between I and me, but he means a little different sense. Benjamin Libet, the American neurophysiologist who made this famous experiments of the delay of conscious awareness when you make a decision, he was very fond of my distinction between the I and the me. Because it solved a problem that was very deep, at least in my view, and Benjamin Libet agreed, in the discussions over what is the consequence of what Benjamin Libet found. And I’ll use that as the way into your problem of the relationship between the conscious and the non-conscious.

Jim: Okay, let’s take a minute here and tell people about the famous Libet result, which some people will know but other people won’t. It’ll be very useful to get that on the table.

Tor: What Benjamin Libet did was that he was doing studying the brain and he had access to go into the brain of people, because he had colleagues in San Francisco that were doing brain surgery and so on. He was a very curiosity driven person and he tried to find out what happened inside the brains of people when they became conscious.

And his starting point was a discovery made in the ’60s by two German guys, Kornhuber and Deecke, who were measuring the electric potential around the brain of a person. What’s happening in the electric field around the brain, so to speak? And they had shown a very surprising result, that whenever you make a decision to do something, like you flick your finger or you wave your hand or something very basic and simple, you can see the brain’s electric potential changing. Which is a natural thing. The brain wants to start an act, a movement. And so it starts planning this thing and it takes a little while before it’s actually executed into a movement.

And it turns out, in Kornhuber and Deecke’s experiment, which is very surprising, that one second before you do that thing of waving your hand, your brain is already started preparing for that. And so you ask this question, okay, if my brain starts preparing one second before I do things for doing them, who starts the brain? Because, in my impression, when I choose to do like this and open my hand, it happens immediately. So how could my brain know one second before I did it that I was about to do it?

So we already here have this eerie feeling that’s something’s here that’s a little tricky. And Benjamin Libet then decided to use techniques to find out, in the second between when the brain starts preparing and we do the actual act, when during this second do you actually make the conscious decision to perform that act? And it turned out very democratically, you could say, that just in the middle. Right in the middle. So half a second after you started preparing the act, but also half a second before the act is actually performed, you consciously decide to do this.

So you know as a person half a second before you do things that you want to do them. But you only know that half a second after your brain started preparing for that act. Then it becomes a little weird here, because who is in charge here? If you can see what I’m about to do in my brain before I’m actually doing it, and also before I’m conscious that I want to do it, who decides? And the interesting thing here is to start analyzing, what is it you mean when you say who decides? And this is where the “I and me” distinction comes in. The “I” is the consciousness and the “me” is the person.

And so, many people say the Libet experiment shows that you don’t have free will. Because somehow your brain is starting preparing everything before you actually want to do it. There’s something else determining everything. But I would like to point to a distinction here and say, if I am the conscious awareness of what I’m doing, it’s true that I don’t have free will in the sense that whatever I decide has already started being prepared half a second before I decided. So in that sense, “I” do not have free will. But the “me” has it. My person has it.

It’s still my person starting this process half a second before I consciously decide. And you can say that’s a little weird, but it’s not so weird because it means that, in this context, you can say there’s free will in the person, but it’s not the person’s consciousness that is executing this free will because the “I” does not decide. It’s decided by the “me.” And you can say, this seems a little weird, but then start thinking about your everyday life. And my point is, this is actually the most familiar experience in being a human being.

That most of the things we are very good at doing, like walking or talking or laughing or dancing or playing with kids, we do without being consciously aware of what we do. And if we start being consciously aware of, for instance, how we walk, it becomes very difficult to walk. If you start being conscious of how you talk, you start stuttering because you survey yourself. If you become conscious of how you play with kids, you’re not playing with kids, you’re playing with your own idea of you’re playing with the kids.

So in a sense, in most of what we do in life, we are not conscious of what we are doing, but we become conscious of it shortly after. This is very surprising because we usually think of consciousness as the decision maker, the CEO of the company, deciding everything. And it turns out that the company is running without the CEO really knowing what’s going on. And in a sense, this is maybe like real companies, maybe the CEO in many companies doesn’t really know what’s happening and the staff just takes care of everything. And when the CEO thinks that he did everything, they say yes, yes sir, because he’s paying them the bill in the end.

Jim: That’s funny. I should chime in here. As a former CEO, multiple times, I also do a little CEO coaching. Mostly for first time CEOs. And this is the thing I always tell them. Conceptually, you have a bunch of levers and buttons on your desk. Let me tell you the first thing you need to know. They’re not attached to anything. You can press all the buttons you want, nothing will happen. The organism will go about its own business and you have to figure out other ways to influence the organization, all the official stuff, memos, emails, meetings. And nothing will happen most of the time.

You have to find other ways to influence your organization in more subtle ways like culture and hiring the right people and constant, endless repetition of the core purpose and vision of the company. It doesn’t work at all the way they tell you it does in business school. And I suspect that’s at least a little bit congruent with what you’re going to tell us about the I and the me.

Tor: Yes, exactly. It’s very much the story of the I and the me and the story of consciousness. Consciousness is the CEO of the person and it’s the only part of the person that doesn’t know that the CEO doesn’t really control anything.

Jim: The other interesting result. Well, there’s a couple of them. One that comes out of the Libet result and further up downstream work, is that, at least in our conscious frame, we’re actually living a little bit behind the clock. That we’re actually maybe half a second behind real time.

Tor: Yes. But it’s only our conception of the action that’s lagging. It’s not the actual acting. If you take sports people, for instance. They interact at a very quick interaction rate. I interviewed some famous football players, soccer players. Soccer is the great sport here. And I showed them a video of events in football games and I asked them, were you aware of what you were doing at that point or did it just happen to you? And the answer was, it just happened to me. And one of the soccer players I interviewed was Michel Laudrup, who’s a great Danish hero in soccer, and he’s very creative and it’s very obvious that what he’s doing in the football field is really not just instinct. It’s his deep reading of the space and so on. And he would say, it just happens. It’s just something that happens.

So in that sense, you are lagging behind in the sense that you don’t understand what you do when you do it. I used to be a goalkeeper in soccer when I was a kid. I mean, this was actually one of the starting points for this whole line of thinking that led to this book, was that, as a goalkeeper, of course you react. There’s a ball kicked towards your goal and you suddenly jump and you managed to block the ball so it doesn’t get into the goal. And what surprised me so was that I never knew what I was doing before I had already done it. I was hanging there in midair hitting the wall before I realized that there was a shot, there was a ball kicked towards my goal, and I was jumping to get it out of the goal. So I was a spectator, I was the audience of my own acts. And I was very surprised by that.

Jim: And yet we know from a lot of laboratory experiments that there is this whole other way of acting. For instance, if I throw a beach ball, a big round, puffy ball at your face, there’s no time for your conscious mind to react, and yet your hand will knock it away. Very similar to the goalie thing. Which is we do not know how we talk, right? If you actually start to try to select your words one at a time, it sounds like that. But in reality we just stuff some general idea into one of the regions of our brain and some part that’s not conscious at all just rattles off a sentence at high speed just like this. Those are I think fine examples of this distinction between the me and the I. And what your book nails for me is that we make a big mistake when we think that who we are is just the I.

Tor: Exactly. There was an anecdote. After the book was published, I was giving many lectures around the country about the book, and after one lecture came a man up to me and he said, I’m an engineer and I was involved in studying hearing, because I have a hearing impaired son. And in studies of hearing there was a well-known phenomenon called delayed auditory feedback. It’s actually relevant to podcasts. Delayed auditory feedback is that if you, over tape, you hear your own voice delayed by half a second, because it’s recorded and then played to you after half a second. If you hear yourself in this delayed auditory feedback, you start stuttering. If you play delayed auditory feedback to stutterers, people who normally stutter, they stop stuttering.

Jim: That’s interesting. That’s really interesting.

Tor: Because somehow you rock the boat with their own self surveillance. Stuttering is very much about trying to control your own voice and listen to what you say so you are assure that you say it in the right way, but then you are delayed. And you have a problem talking. Like people like me would have in another language, you worry about, is it the right grammar and so on. And so you start actually to be clumsy in the way you use language.

And the point is, I have a generalized theory of stuttering then from working with stuttering people and scientists. In the aftermath of this book, the User Illusion, I learned much about stuttering and I realized that one can make a generalized theory of stuttering. Like for instance, when I dance at a party, it’s sometimes very nice and it flows nicely and looks very good, and suddenly I start thinking, wow, that looks sexy. I’m sure my wife or the women who are there will look at me and say, wow, he’s a sexy dancer. And then suddenly I become spastic. I cannot really dance in a fluent way. Because I start surveying my own dancing. But initially I was just dancing without any control, so “me” can dance, even gracefully, “I” cannot.

Jim: One other thing before we move on from Libet, you reference this in the book as well. I didn’t actually update my research on this to see if this is still thought to be true. But this comes down to the tangly topic of free will. I had Robert Sapolsky on recently for his, I will have to say, relatively silly book on free will recently. Where he claims there is no such thing in an extremely reductionist fashion.

But Libet and people that followed right after Libet, came up with the concept that, let’s use your term. We have the me that’s proposing things, like in my bad case, I see a piece of cake sitting over on the counter. And the me says, oh, I’d love to stuff that in my face. The I, the best it can do is veto it. That was certainly what Libet and friends thought in 1991. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit. And two, do you know what the current thinking is about that question?

Tor: Well Libet, he was very much into the veto theory. That was what consciousness could do, because if we go back to this thing with Kornhuber and Deecke showing that one second before the act, the brain starts preparing. Half a second before it’s done, you consciously decide to do it. And then you do it half a second later. So Libet’s point was, in that half second, you still have time to veto. Consciousness can veto things that are going to, about to, happen. And that was his essential idea.

I would argue that, in a sense it’s much deeper. We should just move the subject of free will from the I to the me and say that me have free will, but it’s not my I that has it. And then the problem disappears. With the Sapolsky notion. I’m a great fan of Sapolsky. Many of his books like Why Zebras Don’t have Ulcers and Behave have made a huge impression on me through many, many years. So I was very interested also in his book about free will, Determined. I also listened to your podcast with him.

I think the problem here is that something has happened in the natural sciences in the past few decades that, in a way, makes his whole point a little bit pointless, in my view. Because what we have learned from complex systems studies and from emergent effects in solid state physics, from collective phenomena in solid state physics. And of course biology. Is that, you might know that there is causality all the way down, but that doesn’t allow you to go the other way, and from the start of that causality, at the situation you’re in.

Phil Anderson, P.B. Anderson, who was also very much involved with the Santa Fe Institute, a solid state physicist, Nobel Prize and so on. He gave a very famous talk in 1971 where he argued that yes, you can take sociology and it’s basically made out of psychological phenomena, made out of biological phenomena, made out of chemistry, out of physics and so on. And you can show that, of course, all political events are basically in a sense the behavior of atoms. But that does not allow you to take atoms and then from those atoms deduce how an elephant will drink water or how someone from your neighborhood would vote for the next presidential election.

Because it’s simply computationally too complex. You cannot go from the big… So on the one hand, yes, there is a causality all the way down, but there’s not the ability to come back from that causality into the real phenomenon. So Robert Graham, a chaos scientist in Germany, chaos theory and nonlinear systems physicist in Germany, he came up with a very simple observation that yes, we know the laws of nature, but that doesn’t allow us to know what they mean. Because we need to know also the initial conditions of the system to find out what the laws actually predict.

And we’ve been living for many, many years with the idea that, if we knew the laws of nature, Newton’s laws of nature, for instance, we knew all that was important, and if we could show that it’s all determined by the laws of Newton, there was no more to ask. But the whole point is that yes, you can know the laws of Newton and you can know all the laws of nature, but it doesn’t allow you to come to the point where you can predict what’s going to happen. Chaos theory told us that in a very convincing way, and I think therefore much of the whole discussion of free will evaporates.

Because yes, in one sense, of course Sapolsky is right that my decision now to put the next word in this sentence in Danish, [foreign language 00:42:39], that was Danish. This was in a sense, you could take that event and then you could deconstruct it down to the start of the universe. But that doesn’t mean that when the universe began, you could deduce that I would do that. So it’s a question of how you see things or the perspective you see in things. And I think it’s a very important thing that, just because you can map the terrain, it doesn’t mean that when you have the map of the terrain, you can deduce what the terrain looks like.

Jim: I did not do a very good job trying to refute him. I listened to the episode after. I usually don’t listen to the episodes after, I did listen to this one. I go, dammit, I should have done a better job on that one. But as you say, just very simple chaos theory, which you can demonstrate with extremely simple equations, shows that, as a practical matter, the attempt to go from the big bang to anything is impossible computationally. Even if you had a parallel universe made out of solid computronium, kind of particle level computers faster than any computer we had. You still couldn’t calculate it. It’s intractable.

But I at least suspect that there’s something else going on, which is that emergence is real. I sometimes like to use the distinction, the difference between the dance and the dancer. Everything you say about the dancer is real. Everything you say about how big they are, how fast they are, what size their feet are, how fast they can move their arms and their legs, every single fact is true. But the dance itself is something distinct. It’s a form of information that is embedded in directing the movement of the dancers. And that, even though it does not violate any laws of physics, it is a new but real thing that emerges in the universe over 13 and a half billion years of evolution. So even if you somehow had a parallel universe with an even faster computer that could do the LePlassian calculation, you still wouldn’t be able to predict these emergences.

Tor: I have two notes on this. One is the Rolf Landauer, the information is physical, physics of information point of view. Where you basically, it takes so much information to calculate the future of the universe that only the universe is big enough of a computers to do so. So there can be no part of the universe that can calculate what happens to the whole universe. That’s a very basic fact of life, actually. The other point is that there’s a song about this that I’m very fond of by Incredible String Band. Does that ring a bell with you?

Jim: I know who they are, yeah, but I don’t know the song.

Tor: Folk music people from Scotland in the ’60s and ’70s. And one of their songs is called The Hedgehog Song. And it’s about a guy who don’t really know how to do with girls. He doesn’t really have success with girls. He’s trying in many, many ways to have a girl love him and so on. And every time he thinks that now I’m there, this little hedgehog comes running to him and it sings to him that, you know all the words and you sing all the notes, but you don’t really know the song. The sadness in your eyes shows that you don’t know the song.

It’s not enough to have the [inaudible 00:45:58], do you call it? That when you have a piece of music, you can write it down in notation. You call that [inaudible 00:46:04] in European languages, I don’t know if you call it. The symbols of the music is not enough to create the music. The text of Shakespeare is not enough to create the theater performance in the theater. So there’s something missing and you cannot predict the meal from the recipe.

Jim: That reality is way too high dimensional to calculate. The little physics problems. And you alluded to this, that the physics problems that we can solve or think that we can solve, are toy problems. When you get to real world problems, even something as simple as three bodies rotating around each other, you can’t solve them. For the problem of deterministic chaos and perhaps some other reasons.

Which now actually brings us to the next topic. I want to make sure we don’t miss this one because this I thought was very interesting. Which is this very, very high dimensional world that the I and the me are both embedded in. When we interact with each other, we actually have a whole lot of information about this high dimensional universe we’re embedded in that does not get transmitted in communications between us. Which you called exo-information. And again, 1991, that was a pretty prescient idea, but has now become a bit more common, but I would say underappreciated even today. So maybe you could tell us about that and what you mean by that.

Tor: Yeah. For me, it started out when I was a teenager. I was reading in the Guinness Book of Records, and there was one of these weird, silly, stupid records was the shortest correspondence in the history of correspondence. That’s kind of interesting. And I was, what is that? And it turned out the French writer, Victor Hugo, he had written actually this book Les Miserables in 1867 or something like that. And he had finished the book and he went on vacation, having finished his book, and it was published in Paris. And he couldn’t resist the urge to find out what happened to my book, was it popular or not? And so he wanted to send a letter to his publisher to ask, but a writer on vacation doesn’t want to write too much. So he just simply sent a letter comprised by a question mark.

And of course to the publisher, that was enough. He knew that, oh, this guy wants to know how it goes, so he looked into the sales statistics and listened to what they talked about in the songs and so on, and read the reviews and sent back a letter to Hugo consisting of an exclamation mark. And that was all. You didn’t need to know more. And so this was the shortest correspondence in history. But it was a very meaningful communication, a very meaningful correspondence. And of course, had he sent a full stop instead of an exclamation mark, that would have ruined Hugo’s [inaudible 00:48:46].

So it’s possible to convey a lot of information with very few bits. And that’s the point here. If you measure it in terms of bits, there’s not much in this Hugo correspondence. If you measure it in terms of what’s happening in the mind of Hugo and his publisher, there’s a lot of stuff going on. So the point was to say, we shouldn’t analyze communication in general by just counting the bits being transferred through the channels or the cables or whatever. What we should be interested in is the amount of information that it provokes in the recipient’s brain. But also the other way around, the amount of information that is condensed into the first message.

Hugo has all these worries in his head. How is my book doing? Does anyone like it? Is it a success? And he compresses all of that into a question mark. Because that really represents all of his worries. And when the publisher sees, whoa, it’s a very successful book, he compresses it into an exclamation mark. And this is enough to exchange these two very simple things, but only because there’s some context that allows both parties to understand that something is going on in the mind of Hugo, and something is going on in the mind of the publisher, that is somehow referred to by these two very simple symbols.

So that’s what I call ex-formation, that the information that was explicitly thrown away, because Hugo throws a lot of information away that he has in his head when he makes the question mark, and the publisher throws a lot of information away when he condenses it into an exclamation mark. And they can exchange that. So the point is that all communication really consists of a little information being exchanged and a lot of ex-formation being produced. First in the brain that compresses a state into a symbol. And then in the other end, a symbol that’s unfolded into a state of mind.

Jim: And of course, that applies to probably every kind of communications we do. I’m a bit of a fan of literary fiction. And one of the most popular genres of literary fiction is the young adult coming of age. And even though a novel has a lot of words, it assumes a vast amount of your understanding about what it is like to be a young adult or I suppose as a teenager. I used to read that stuff even when I was a teenager. At least your imagination of what being a young adult was about. And so the actual words, that even the greatest literary novelists use less words, I would argue, because they are more accurate in being able to assume what they can depend upon in what you would call the ex-information.

Tor: Yeah. And if you compare the modern media consumption of a youngster with the traditional old media consumption. If you read a book, you’re basically a co-creator of the content of the story, because you have to create a lot of ex-formation in your head based on the little information you take in through the text. If you take modern media consumption, you have these films and movies with music and acting and lots of stuff happening at a very fast pace, and you don’t really get the same chance to co-create or co-produce or co-invent the story that you had when it was just a nice little Hemingway text that was very condensed and yet evoked enormous emotion in you.

Jim: And of course, that goes way, way back. For reasons not worth discussing. Last fall, I read two translations of Homer’s Iliad. One in prose and one in poetry. And the poetry one’s a recent one, and it was brilliant. And again, the author, a woman, her take was… She was a scholar of classical languages, a deep scholar, classical languages. She said, contrary to many of the later prose translations, the actual Iliad of Homer used very, very simple Greek. And one of the reasons is, Greek was not just Greek in the time of Homer, there was many, many variants of dialects, that if you used very simple words were mutually understandable. But if you use specialized words, were not mutually understandable.

And so the Homeric bards that, at that time, were in the oral tradition only, they had not even written a thing down yet, cooked the Iliad down to a kind of Greek that most Greeks could understand. And in her translation, she used, intentionally, only those words that every Greek would have understood in 1300 B.C. And it made for this amazingly powerful translation of this grand story.

Tor: Wow, that’s a beautiful story. Yeah, you enjoyed it.

Jim: Oh, tremendous. I couldn’t put it down. It was like magic. I actually wrote the author and said, wow, this is… I read another Iliad when I was a freshman in college as part of the western tradition courses they made us all take. And I kind of liked it then. And I read this prose translation for some reason. I go, okay. But it was Butler’s prose translation, a well-known one, but it seemed lik a little bit wordy, and I can’t imagine the real Greeks quite being that way. And then I read hers and it was like, all right, I’m there. I could feel the rage of Achilles and how different these people were.

I mean, these were barbarians. They thought kidnapping women and raping them was a fun sport and something to be bragged about. That’s their hobby. Or it’s like sacking towns and kidnapping the women and raping them and making them the sex slaves. And so the alienness of that mind actually came through, which, and again, with very simple words and very simple rhymes. She actually did also chose, because for the English language, rather than using hexameter, which is the poetry form typically used by the Greeks in that period, she instead transliterated it into Iambic pentameter, which is the rhythms of Shakespeare. Because that’s so grooved into the English brain. And the combination of very simple words in Iambic pentameter was able to do this transmitting me into the brain of Bronze-age savages, which was astounding.

Tor: That’s fantastic. But then I have a question for you. Because in this book, the User Illusion, I quote the American psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jim: I was going to go there next actually.

Tor: Okay.

Jim: I read Jaynes’s book when it first came out. And here’s an interesting talk about the difference of our times. What was the full title of his book?

Tor: The Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Jim: This was a number one bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list for months. Now what are the chances today that a book of that level would be the number one bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list?

Tor: These days? It would be Stephen Hawking about the Origin of the Universe or something.

Jim: It’s been 20 years since books of that sort have made it on the list. But anyway, neither here nor there. I read James when it first came out. I’ve been thinking about James for a long time. I talked to Dan Dennet about Jaynes’s and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind when he was at the Santa Fe Institute doing a sabbatical period one time. And I still have a hard time believing it. Why don’t you lay out for our audience, Jaynes’s theory, how it’s relevant to your book and what your current thinking is about it?

Tor: Jaynes’s basic point is that since most of what we do, we can do without being consciously aware of it, it’s fully possible that you could have a long period in human history where we didn’t use consciousness for anything. His point is that consciousness actually arose at a time not far away from Homer in the origin of modern civilization in Babylon. And we have documentation in the descriptions they give of the transition from one kind of mind to another kind of mind.

And he uses together with the Canadian historian, Morris Berman… Actually the Odyssey, which is sort of the twin of the Iliad that you were referring to now, as a story of how the ego or the conscious I took over in humans that were acting without conscious awareness of what they were doing. How this CEO of the I slowly takes over and claims control of the person. So Jaynes’s point is that this is what happens in that period.

Before this takeover by the conscious I, people would have a parliament of voices in their heads that would speak to them, and that would be the gods. Like the Greeks had many gods, the Babylonians had many gods, and if a person wanted to make a choice, he would have this parliament running in his head. He wouldn’t know what to do, but suddenly he would stand up and do whatever he did. And this idea of an inner space where you could make a decision was historically new. That was Jaynes’s main point.

And he would argue then that people who still function like these old people from the early Greek tradition and so on today would be termed schizophrenics or mentally ill in some other way. I think that’s a very powerful way of understanding history and of course of understanding part of the literature from that time, which you can argue is very much about this taking over of the ego.

Jim: Yeah, certainly the Iliad, which was the earlier of the two, did seem to be more alien in the nature of the characters than the Odyssey, at least for me. Again, I’ve read the Odyssey a couple of times. It’s never roused me the way the Iliad has. Probably because Odysseus is a more recognizably modern character in the Odyssey than… Well, Odysseus has some small role to play in the Iliad, but he’s not the main character. The characters in the Iliad are just very alien, very Bronze Age. This is what probably Jaynes was pointing at.

I will say that I think some of this comes from issues around the term consciousness. Because clearly Bronze Age people were conscious. They were living in a movie of their life and they were responding and getting attention in this 50-bit per second environment. So they were conscious. But what they may or may not have been, have been self-conscious in the way that humans are. So they weren’t not conscious in the way that a dog is conscious. So we’re sure that they’re able to do that, or they wouldn’t have been able to process their decisions and come up with strategies and all these things that they talk about so much in the book. But they may not have had this concept of the I that was so strong.

Tor: And yes, and in Jaynes’s line of thinking, he would say they were not aware of being aware. They didn’t have this kind of self-awareness or self-consciousness, that is a distinct thing happening in human history. It could also happen in animals, but in our history it’s fairly recent, a few thousand years actually. And how could they then run a society? And Jaynes’s point is that most of what we do, we can easily do without conscious awareness. Like driving a car or doing most of our stuff, we can do without actually being consciously aware of it. And most of it we actually do better if we’re not consciously aware of it. This whole self surveillance is not necessarily the starting point of civilized processes.

Jim: In the book, you also quote something I was not aware of. I think it was a French philosopher, if I got it right, who has hypothesized that something similar happened during the dark ages in Europe. Where, at least the I type consciousness declined, if not went to zero. I have put forth a possible experiment to see if Jaynes is right. I don’t know if anyone’s done this. I meant to do the research before this podcast, but my granddaughter is visiting, so I was playing with her this morning. It was much more valuable, frankly, than doing research online. And I was curious if anybody has interviewed, just-contacted tribes in the Amazon. People who have been distinct from the wider culture for thousands of years. And per Jaynes, they ought to show a very different profile around I and me. Do you have any idea whether that experiment has been done?

Tor: To my knowledge, not the exact experiment you are proposing of the I and the me. There’s a huge tradition in anthropology and ethnology trying to understand the worldviews of other kinds of cultures than the western cultures. They certainly see the role of the acting subject of the person doing something in a different way than we do. They see them more as part of a process than as the CEO-like person, if you like.

So I would argue that you could probably, by using the existing literature in anthropology and ethnology, you could come up with a lot of cases arguing for what you’re saying. And you could see also the structure of the languages showing that they have a different idea of who is making the decisions. It’s not just the Argentinian writer Marcus who has languages where everything is works, everything is processes. You also have it in Native American tribes. I think you could actually argue pretty strongly that way.

Jim: Yeah, Jaynes being a big target you’d think somebody would have done that study and see if they could reconcile either support or refute Jaynes by marshaling anthropology one way or the other. Now let’s turn to, these insights that you’ve had lead you to say some things about humans and what we might do in terms of how we live. So the implications of your book, the I, the me, the radical reduction of bandwidth that comes from between perception and consciousness. The fact that the I thinks it’s doing more than it is. What can people take from these insights, for both individuals and maybe humanity more general, in living better lives?

Tor: We often say that we live in the information society these days. That there’s so much information floating around in our lives and that we are so overwhelmed by information. That’s a common theme in modern discussions. The point of this book is to say the opposite. That there’s less and less information in our lives. And actually much of the unease we feel with life is about the fact that our lives and our living environments have been emptied of information. And of course then we have all the digital information, but that doesn’t really make up for enough, compared to all the analog information we’ve been erasing from this space we live in.

If you take a city or a road, it’s a much simpler way of organizing the world than if you take a wilderness, for instance. A wilderness is very rich in information, very difficult to conceptualize and understand and explain, but it’s very, very rich. And that’s basically biologically where we are coming from in terms of evolution. Then we can make a field where we grow corn or whatever it is, and we simplify this area enormously. The amount of information necessary to describe a corn field is much less than the amount of information you would need to describe the wilderness before.

If you then asphalt it and you make a road out of it or you make a city out of it, there’s even less information present because everything is so straight and straight in line and clean cut and so on. The environment you live in becomes devoid of information and it’s very uninspiring to walk around, if you will excuse me, in an American suburb. And there’s not a lot of information there. And so the point is that the malaise of the modern times is that there’s too little information in our lives in the information society. So we are craving information and we are trying to extract that information from our smartphones, but it doesn’t really give us satisfaction.

So I think we should think much more in terms of not controlling nature so much, not controlling our living space so much, and allowing more wilderness and more otherness, more things that are not our own project to grow forward. We’ll have more fun that way. We’ll have more joy that way. And of course, one of the things that gives us joy is interacting with other human beings. They’re unpredictable and they are other. They’re different. They’re not how we consciously want them to be, and that also brings us enormous joy. So we need to look for things that we cannot control and cannot foresee.

Somehow the process of civilization has been about taking away all the things that annoy us. All the things that are irritating, like rain or wind or pests. In many ways that’s good. But the great problem of modern civilization is that we thought that if we just took away everything that made us unhappy, the only thing that would be left would be happiness. That’s not the way it works. Happiness is not un-unhappiness. Happiness is something else. And you can take away unhappiness by taking away all the annoying things from the world around us, inside a warm house without any wind and so on. But that doesn’t give you happiness. You have to go somewhere else to find happiness, interacting with other people, interacting with other species on the planet, interacting with the wilderness and so on. And we have to reach out for that to be more happy.

Jim: I absolutely agree. And one way I might say it is, advanced civilization has reduced the dimensionality of life and continues to grind down the dimensionality, the difference between watching porn and having sex. Rude example. But I take your point. I’d like to remind folks that we’re talking about Tor Norretrander’s, book the User Illusion, Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, which as always, we’ll have a link to on the episode page at the I would like to thank Tor for an extraordinarily interesting conversation.

Tor: It’s been fun.

Jim: Yes, indeed.