Behind the times

One interesting assertion made in “The User Illusion” — the tome on consciousness I’ve been raving about — is that humans consciously experience events in their environment about a half second after they occur. So, you might be looking at a pretty flower, but you’re actually seeing that flower in the state it was in half a second ago. It didn’t take long for the light to bounce off that flower, hit your retinal cells, travel through your optic nerve and arrive at the doorstep of the primitive, reptilian parts of your brain. But it did take a while — slightly less than half a second — for that neural processing to then bubble up to your conscious experience.

You might think, “Wait a second! If I’m half a second behind everything, then anyone could just walk up to me and punch me in the nose. By the time I realized they were swinging at me, they would’ve already connected.” And that’s a good observation (although people often are successfully punched in the nose.) It seems like creatures would last long if they were half a second behind reality. You’d never have time to duck a thrown spear, avoid a leaping predator etc.

What “The User Illusion” is ultimately arguing is that you — your conscious self — is not the one avoiding the punch/spear/leaping sabertooth tiger. While it takes your conscious self half a second to absorb reality, your unconscious self operates with much more speed. Your unconscious self leaps into action to avoid danger before your conscious self even has time to appreciate the situation. I think we’ve all experienced this on some level. Out of the blue, a friend whirls around and throws a Nerf ball at you. Without thinking, you bat it away. Or, more to the point, you observe yourself batting it away. Your conscious self is far more spectator than participant.

This takes me back to one of the seminal events of my life, first reported at this blog. About eight years ago, I was driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento. I was veering right to merge onto a freeway, and my rear wheels hit gravel on the side of the road. The car spun out of control and I ended up doing a complete 360 on the freeway and, rather comically, coming to a stop in the very lane I was shooting for. The whole experience probably took a couple seconds, but as is often reported during such events, time slowed to a crawl. At first I didn’t quite realize what was happening, then, as I was seemingly about to fly off the road I started to take a quizzical interest. When the car had spun 180°, and I was actually looking at the drivers of the cars were going in the right direction, I had a certain sense that this might be a serious situation. And it was right about when the car came to a screeching stop (pointed in the correct direction) that I felt a certain panic. The point being, I was always behind the moment! I was incapable of processing was happening in that specific point in time until it had already passed.

How far behind was I?

Oh, about half a second.

7 Responses to “Behind the times”


  1. John Saleeby

    Watch a bunch of episodes of “Jersey Shore” and then listen to “The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy – I GUARENTEE at least five minutes of NON STOP LAUGHTER.

    The “Watch a bunch of episodes of ‘Jeresy Shore’” is the hard part. REALLY HARD. But IT WORKS!!!

  2. ahole

    god, you’re a fucking idiot.

  3. John Saleeby

    Oh, now I’m too insecure to finish my article for the next issue.

    “Oh, what can I come up with that will be funny and entertaining enough for ‘ahole’?”

    I’m going to go to bed and sleep for another three hours instead of writing.

  4. ahole

    No no no. I was talking to Wil. It’s good to remind him of certain things once in awhile.

  5. wil

    I’m reminded of all the women laughing at the size of your penis.

    Good times…

  6. John Saleeby

    What an insecure douchebag I am. Some one posts “You’re a fucking idiot.” on Wil Forbis blog and I assume they’re talking about me!

  7. ahole

    at least we have this site detailing Wil’s personal relationship with the penis:
    http://www.forbisanddick.com/