Our human interface with reality

The narrowness of now

  • Bottleneck is a book about human learning at the most fundamental level.
  • It rigorously explores the scientific evidence for our ability to directly experience the world around us in the present moment.
  • It examines the rate that we can learn from a perspective of information, using the ubiquitous measure of bits per second, and discovers that we cannot learn new information at more than a few tens of bits per second, (a million times slower than our broadband connection to the Internet).
  • This presents a paradox, for the world we inhabit and experience through our senses appears incredibly detailed and rich in information. Indeed it would require an information rate of many Gigabits per second to create a visual display that is indistinguishable from actual reality, and we are far from being able to achieve such imagery today.
  • Measurements of the bit rate of some of our physical skills, reveal a similar limited information rate of around ten bits per second.

Philosophical implications:

  • The evidence of such low rates of learning, is proof that what we experience in the present moment, cannot be a direct experience of reality but must be almost entirely a construct of our imagination.
  • Therefore it can only be a model of what lies before our senses, a model slowly built from all our previous experiences and updated with a tiny trickle of fresh information from now.
  • Our mind relies on predictions from our past experiences to create the richness of the present.
  • We therefore inhabit an entire universe no bigger than the space between our ears.
  • This universe is unique to ourself, as it is based on what we personally have experienced.

We can recognise faster than we can learn.

  • The raw information capacity of senses such as vision is much greater than our learning bottleneck, many Megabits per second.
  • Our mind learns by comparing what we expect to sense, (what we predict from experience), with what our senses actually sense. It continually refines our ideas of what is out there. This wider limit determines our ability to recognise what we are familiar with.
  • This is the basis of acquiring a skill. Practice hones and refines the difference between what we anticipate, and what we sense.

Wider implications:

  • Human language has an information capacity of a few tens of bits per second. The fact that this is so similar to the information rate of other human learning processes, suggests that it too is limited by our learning bottleneck.
  • When we recognise that our moment by moment experience is based almost entirely on prediction, we are provided with a scientific insight into the process of prejudice inviting us to peer beyond our cosy moral judgements.

The Future:

  • The width of our bottleneck is determined by our biology and physiology, so is unlikely to be easily increased.
  • The bottleneck is narrowed by the extent and complexity of our idea of the world. Smart chimps have out-performed the best of human mind athletes when tested and measured in bits per second.
  • Our learning bottleneck fundamentally limits our species ability to conceive ever greater ideas.

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