Monday, January 18, 2010

A short delay in mind time...

Paraphrasing the "mind time" related discoveries of the late Benjamin Libet, a pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness, goes something like this: The conscious human mind takes half a second (500 milliseconds) of brain activity to register awareness of an event, whereas it appears that the unconscious mind responds far more quickly.

This is obvious, think when a car swerves into your lane while driving, you respond in far less than a half-second, but the question is - who is responding? Think of champion tennis players at the net volleying back and forth - half a second of processing time would make for lots of missed tennis balls. "A series of experiments have shown that we register unconsciously a whole host of things which may influence our response to events but which never cross the threshold into consciousness," writes "Peter" the author of the fantastic Conscious Entities site. Life is literally passing us by folks.

Sticking with the tennis match, does this mean that in a fast game our unconscious minds are the ones playing and our conscious minds are always a half second behind, merely observing ourselves play? Is our conscious self really just a spectator of our immediate experience on a short delay? Are we slaves to an unconscious we can't control? Is free will an illusion? Dr. Libet wrestled with this problem and came up with a rather amazing understanding of it.

"On the tennis court," writes Peter, "we would find to our surprise that we returned a serve competently before we actually saw the ball, and certainly without thinking about where in the opposite court we might want to put it. Our conscious and unconscious behaviour would be strangely unsynchronised. Libet's hypothesis was that conscious awareness is subjectively referred backwards in time. We consciously perceive the stimulus as occuring at the same moment it registers unconsciously, even though it doesn't in fact enter our awareness until it has persisted for half a second. Subjectively we backdate it to match the EP (evoked potential) at the beginning rather than the end of the 500 millisecond span."

What a hall of mirrors! "Be here 500 milliseconds from now" is the bumper sticker. Our daily functioning seems contingent upon our not thinking too hard about the precise moment. Let the tools do their tricks, you don't want to know how sausage is made. But as our world speeds up, one wonders at what point our own wiring will simply be unable to keep up with the technology we're building.

Read the entire article here.

("Nude Descending a Staircase" by Peter Jansen)


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