The 40 bit limit

I’m continuing to read this book “The User Illusion,” which is a overall survey of the study of human consciousness. I’ve gotten to one interesting section where the author is describing the two “persons” within a human. There is the “I” — the conscious self which provides our generally accepted narrative for life. Then there is the “me” — the cumulation of the gazillions of unconscious processes occurring in the human mind at any given moment.

Like the discipline of computer science, this book measures information in terms of bits. Bits are essentially yes or no questions. I still don’t totally understand how you can measure the world around you this way, but I’m guessing it’s something like this: a red circle would be two or three bits. You can ask the question, is it a circle or not, and get a yes or no answer. You can ask the question is it red or not, and get a yes or no answer. Maybe a third it would be used up to deal with the size.

Now, via all your sensory inputs — sight, hearing, smell etc. — you’re absorbing a whole lot of bits per second (I can’t recall the exact number, and a cursory review of the book came up empty, but I think it’s in the millions.) However, scientists have determined that the human consciousness can handle at maximum about 40 bits per second. It shouldn’t really be much of a surprise. Even if you’re hearing the air conditioner, usually you’re not conscious of it. Even if you’re looking at an expansive scene of natural beauty, you’re probably only focused on specific parts of it — say a plant — from moment to moment. When smelling a sweet flower, people often close their eyes to not be distracted by their other senses.

So how does this relate to I and me? Well, I is the consciousness experiencing life at 40 bits per second. Me is the unconscious. And there seems to be a solid argument that me is doing a lot with those other bits — the ones not making it to the consciousness. This corresponds with the classic suspense thriller narrative — someone gets hypnotized and revisits the scene of their parents’ murders and realized that they did see the killer, just not consciously.

There’s another interesting facet to this. If you’re any kind of performer — a musician, a comedian, an actor, a sportsman — it’s your me that you’re training when you practice. To really achieve the “flow” necessary to master your discipline, you need to be able to release your me on command. Or more to the point, you need to get your I to shut the fuck up when it’s time to perform.

2 Responses to “The 40 bit limit”


  1. Use your 40 bits wisely at My So-Called Penis

    [...] as nagging and annoying as pain. In thinking about this, I’m reminded of a theory I’ve mentioned before: the 40 bit limit. What’s that? This site has a good review. …researchers now believe [...]

  2. Listening to music mindfully at My So-Called Penis

    [...] I’ve also mentioned that I’m very intrigued by the notion that while we intake tons of sensory information, we can only consciously appreciate a limited amount (40 bits to be exact.) So, my view is that in traditional meditation, you’re aiming your 40 bits at the candle, the phrase, whatever. In mindfulness meditation you’re aiming it at whatever sensory information rises through the muddle. In both cases, however, your not aiming your 40 bits at “thoughts” e.g. analyzing why your neighbor doesn’t like you, remembering the need to call your aunt, wondering if anyone has liked your Facebook post etc. In essence, you’re experiencing life not as it relates to you and your ego, but just as it happens. [...]