Consciousness Quantified: Does this offer a glimpse into human operating systems?

A fascinating article came up during my normal blog-walk where a scientific hypothesis dealing with human consciousness has been raised. Most people tend not to think about it at all and live life in the perspective that they are witnessing events and responding to them in real time. That’s perfectly fine but there’s been a line of inquiry that calls the literal truth of that into question. In brief, the concept that our observation of events takes time – that what you are viewing at this precise instant takes another instant or two for you to actually process – leads to the notion that we live just a hair behind the actual events of the world. A pair of scientists are theorizing that our consciousness actually occurs not as a stream, but as a series of individual “slices” of time.

According to a new study by Swiss psychophysicists, neither hypothesis is truly correct. Rather, they propose a new two-stage model for how we process information, which they say reconciles the ‘continuous vs discrete‘ debate.

In their model, ‘time slices’ consisting of unconscious processing of stimuli last for up to 400 milliseconds (ms), and are immediately followed by the conscious perception of events.

“According to our model, the elements of a visual scene are first unconsciously analysed. This period can last up to 400 ms and involves, amongst other processes, the analysis of stimulus features such as the orientation or colour of elements and temporal features such as object duration and object simultaneity,” the authors write in PLOS Biology.

After this analysis is complete, the researchers say the features we’ve detected are integrated into our conscious perception, compressing all the unconscious recording into something we’re actually aware of.

In other words, while we’re taking the world in, we’re not actually consciously perceiving it. Instead, we’re just mutely using our senses to record data for up to 400 ms at a time. Then, in what could be called a moment of clarity, we consciously perceive the stimuli that our senses have detected.

The team thinks this presentation of information to our consciousness lasts for about 50 milliseconds, during which we also stop taking new sensory information in. And then repeat.

Interesting concept. As I read this, I had a thought of my own. This hypothesis, if true, could explain a phenomenon many of us have experienced: the perception that “time slowed down” during an event that was exciting or traumatic in some way. Take, for instance, a car crash. We’ve heard it over and over from people that as they became aware that a crash was imminent it seemed, from their perspective, that everything went into slow motion. The same thing happens quite often to people involved in a fight. Now time, as we understand it, doesn’t really slow down. While the events I’ve mentioned appear to be in slow motion for those involved, outside observers and video recordings show that things happened pretty much at the same speed as anything else. So why the difference?

What if, in line with this new hypothesis, our mental “operating systems” have the ability to significantly shorten the observation window of 400 milliseconds (ms)? As in the car crash example above, a person recognizes the event and suddenly shifts from a 400 ms window to a 100 ms window, with a corresponding drop in the presentation to consciousness from 50 ms to, say, 15 ms. Rather than taking in and processing over a period of 450 ms, this person is now perceiving the world in slices of 115 ms. Objects move a much smaller distance in a quarter of the time and this would make the object appear to be moving much more slowly. We already know that the rush of adrenaline into a person’s system, among other physical changes, improves reaction times. What if this is how the human mind improves a person’s ability to react to a life-threatening situation? Going back to the stone age, this might be the difference between dodging aside and getting a spear between you and a lion and becoming lion chow.

I believe this ability is also trainable, albeit extremely difficult to hone. I know several martial artists who have developed reaction times that are astoundingly small. The ability to shift the mind’s operating system into this shorter cycle might explain that.

This is certainly an interesting insight and I’m glad there are people looking into these things.