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The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  919 ratings  ·  76 reviews
As John Casti wrote, "Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness." This groundbreaking work by Denmark's leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are ...more
Paperback, 480 pages
Published August 1st 1999 by Penguin Books (first published 1991)
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I promised myself years ago that I'd finally stop reading this sort of book, had been sticking to it pretty well (just a couple of regrettable lapses during the 1990s) and had fair warning about this one: standing in the bookshop leafing through its pages, I spotted the word "exformation" - a sort of counterpart of "information" of course - yet still bought the thing anyway. I think I might need professional help (or Bookaholics Anonymous).

You could summarise The User Illusion's thesis on a sing
Cassandra Kay Silva
I found this book really hard to put down. It was surprisingly one of the better written texts describing Entropy I have encountered and I felt like the writer pulled from some magnificent sources for this work. It covered a broad number of fields from consciousness of course to philosophy, communism, cosmology, history, computer science and a whole host of other disciplines. There were really only three main points to it which in some instances became fairly repetitive but the scope of what he ...more
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Mind blown.
Want more.
Still good, still thought-provoking after many years.

I bought this about the time it first came out, and recently finished a re-read of it.

Some parts of it are a bit dated, some parts are perhaps a bit uneven, and the book is arguably as much philosophy as it is science. That said, it's still a good book, good enough to definitely not deserve the 1- and 2-star ratings. So, even though for me alone, it's probably closer to 4 stars, I give it a 5-star rating.

That said, philosophy and science can b
Feb 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book has some really interesting stuff in it, but it was just plain a slog to read through. The chapters have loads of details that are of, at best, passing interest, and it feels as though the book could have been condensed immensely. I found myself zipping through other non-fiction reads by comparison.

If you know how to speed read or how to skim effectively then this book is a bit better of a read. Things improved when I stopped trying to read every word cover to cover and just skimmed th
Sep 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books that makes me lose all interest in writing or saying or thinking about anything, since everything I was cooking up has already been done here.
Troels Leth
Apr 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Conscious thoughts on consciousness.

Dec 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy, science
Tor Norretranders is Denmark’s leading science writer with a track record of best sellers. It follows that his book is a well written compilation of diverse scientific theories and findings, all presented in a chatty style and broken into short chapters and sections that help to keep our interest alive. For anyone who reads a fair number of popular science books there are a lot of familiar names, typically well explained and often presented in an original way or with genuinely useful insights. T ...more
Shreyash Tiwari
Jun 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed every moment of this book! And it was a long read. The author introduces known concepts in a vivid manner and talks about them in a novel way, adds some of his own new concepts and builds it into a coherent logic, a lens you can view the world with.
My favourite excerpt is the Exformation of phone call, brilliant observation, hidden in plainsight!
Dec 31, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: neuroscience
This is an explanation of consciousness via a tour of;entropy,information theory,thermodynamics,philosophy,computing,Godel's theorem and experimental neuroscience,to name but a few of the subjects employed.The result is an understanding of consciousness that is compelling,informative and which is entertaining enough to overcome any dryness caused by some of the more technical areas covered.The author is a Danish science writer and seems to know his readership well and I didn't find his style as ...more
Dennis Littrell
Aug 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Human consciousness as a metaphor of the computer age

This is a wonderful book translated from the Danish by Jonathan Sydenham, written more or less from a quantum physicist's point of view by a science journalist, but very readable, marred slightly by a Western bias.

One of the things learned here is that it takes half a second for our consciousness to be aware of what we're doing. We don't notice this time lag because the mind back-peddles and makes it appear that we are on sync. The mind must b
This is currently my favourite kind of book, and possibly exactly what I needed to read right now.

I usually say that the reason I prefer non-fiction over fiction is because there are so many recurring characters. ("It's like, they are all part of the same universe!" ^^) And this book brings together so many favourite people. I love it.
It also provides solid and clear as well as comprehensive explanations of ideas and discussions concerning Entropy, Information, Complexity, Communication, Consc
J.B. Mason
May 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fabulous book that cuts the primacy of our opinion of what we think. Turns out what we think is mostly a story we create depending on how aware we are of what we feel through the body. In fact the body is shown to be the REAL source of our intelligence. Dense, interesting and highly recommended read that could radically transform your life. If this book convinces you that your body and movements is the source of intelligence then another book called Move to Excel shows you how to cultivate body ...more
Jun 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
The hard science version of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink." The premise of the book is that our brains evolved to show us less, not more, information, much the same way our computer desktops spare us from all the code and computing going on under the hood ("User Illusion" is apparently a programming term for that sort of user interface.)

An absolutely mind-blowing book (no pun intended) and must-read for anyone interested in brain science and perception.
Jan 21, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this years ago and thought it engrossing and fascinating. It was blurbed along the lines of "if you read a single book about consciousness, make it this one." The only thing making it 4 star and not 5 was that I recall during the final chapter(s), where Norretranders started talking about a topic I actually knew about, it made me question the reliability of what I had read before... ...more
Juliane Roell
Didn't read it through completely. It is interesting, but it didn't really grab me. I think it is the journalistic style, the style of an uninvolved observer, which makes it difficult to stay with the narrative for a long time. Maybe I will come back to it in the future. ...more
Mr. Twinkie
Oct 22, 2014 marked it as to-read
I am certainly not a fan of Nørrestranders and his views on life but that doesn't mean I won't try to understand his thoughts. ...more
Yevgeniy Brikman
Oct 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A spectacular book that has completely changed my understanding of the mind and consciousness. I poured through this 400+ pages in just a few days - I couldn't set it down.

The critical arguments in this book are:

1. Research shows that your unconscious processes a huge amount of sensory information; your conscious, on the other hand, processes only a tiny fraction of it (roughly 1 millionth).

2. This implies that the unconscious is responsible for an enormous percentage of your thinking: it decide
Tom McLaughlin
Nov 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is the best non-fiction book I have ever read and I don’t really think it’s close.

It is the most inter-disciplinary yet cohesive book I’ve ever encountered. It is, however, dense at times (especially in the beginning) so if you struggle reading non-fiction in general or don’t have at least some science background it can be a difficult read but it is so worth it. In spite of the heavy science (I can’t be more specific than ‘science’ because it covers too many individual fields to try and nu
Gintarė Lingytė
Dec 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The best book! Not an easy read though, but nicely written science. For those who want to learn about conscious mind, read pure scientific view of it’s power, limitations, history and the planet itself. Often this type of books draws rather paranoid view on this topic or lack of fair arguments. But this one is not only rich of facts, but also delivers the message of how human is connected to the planet and how conscious mind is deriving the world. I am not the one who reads same book again, but ...more
Shobha Deepthi
Sep 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Are you more than your Consciousness?

Is human a conscious, rational being? Can we explain everything that happens to us or around us? Are all our (re)actions, decisions, choices in life done consciously? One would be taken aback if I were ( sorry if the author and the science) were to tell you that consciousness plays hardly any role in our lives.

" To be aware of an experience means that it has passed"

How do you explain dreams? Am sure all of us would have at least one dream that came true. Not
Dec Lloyd
Oct 26, 2017 rated it liked it
the scope of this book is impressive, there's no denying that. But like many others I find it far too digressive, and what's more, there's no real or original argument being made here, it is essentially just a very lengthy commentary on an array of topics which vaguely centre around consciousness ...more
Dec 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I still talk about this book almost fifteen years later.

The key takeaway that I have is that consciousness, free will as we commonly think of it, is an illusion. Our subconscious may have free will and our consciousness justifies our decisions after they've already been made.
Sep 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book blew my mind when reading it in my early 20s. Other than a thorough, step-by-step introduction to the history of physics and information theory, it delves deeply into the hard problem of the nature of consciousness and illustrates the shortcomings of a reductionist approach.
Sep 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
A great overview of how scientists' perspective on what "consciousness" really is has evolved over time and up to this day. I personally found it a bit boring after the first half and wanted to rush to the end. ...more
Nilendu Misra
Jan 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the ten most insightful “inter-disciplinary” books. Beautiful, complex, asymmetric and mind-stretching.
Oct 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Very dense book. Was a five star book until the last section which seemed to wander off the topic.
Mike S
Aug 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This book will change your understanding of yourself, and of consciousness in general. It draws from many fields of study including psychology, biology, information theory, philosophy, and physics. The author supports his ideas extremely well. It's easy to read, presenting complex ideas in very practical terms. You may find the first section of the book a bit slow and wonder how it relates to the main subject, but if you keep reading you'll appreciate why the author devoted so much time to those ...more
Nov 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
This large book covers a broad range of science, including physics (both Newtonian and quantum), information theory, psychology, and computer science, but its central message is the startling fact, well supported by the author's arguments, that the bandwidth of consciousness is a mere 16 bits per second of the 10 million bits per second or more that flood into our sensory systems. As we all know, apparently intelligent systems in the body control our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digest ...more
Jun 30, 2020 rated it did not like it
This book is infuriating. The whole premise is based on such flimsy and ill-thought out psychology, like the idea that we can't perceive more than about 10 clicks per second before they sound like a constant tone so our aural bandwidth of consciousness is 10 bits a second - as though the only way we consciously perceive information is by counting individual bits. If only the inventors of the mp3 format knew this they needn't have spent years trying to make decent sounding music at 128,000 bits p ...more
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Tor Nørretranders is a Danish author of popular science. His books and lectures have primarily been focused on light popular science and its role in society, often with Nørretranders' own advice about how society should integrate new findings in popular science. He introduced the notion of exformation (explicitly discarded information) in his book The User Illusion.

Academic background:

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“Consciousness is not about information but about its opposite: order. Consciousness is not a complex phenomenon; it is what consciousness is _about_ that is complex. It is presumably this fact that is the reason many scientists over the decades have tended to perceive information as something involving order and organization. Because consciousness is about an experience of order and organization. Because consciousness is a state that does not process much information - consciously. Consciousness consists of information no more than a person who consumes large amounts of food can be said to consist of food. Consciousness is nourished by information the same way the body is nourished by food. But human beings do not consist of hot dogs; they consist of hot dogs that have been eaten. Consciousness does not consist of hots dogs but consists of hot dogs that have been apprehended. That is far less complex.” 5 likes
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