Newsletter – The User Illusion

The User Illusion


In April the Engineering Management SIG (SEM SIG) invited Betty Jo Waxman of Productive Learning & Leisure to share a presentation called “Does Your Thinking Limit Your Success?” Although a rhetorical question with a rather obvious answer, the revelations during this event were anything but obvious. My interest in the topic was heightened by the fact that this particular area of study parallels my own work in enabling individuals, teams and organizations to achieve what initially appears impossible.

Accomplishing seemingly impossible goals actually isn’t that hard, but I try to make it look a little difficult for two reasons. First, I don’t want to embarrass the poor guy who’s been working unsuccessfully to accomplish it for the past two years, and second, I want my customers to feel that I am worth what they are paying me. But, the truth is, I have decided to specialize in impossible projects because predictable progress can be made using some fairly straightforward approaches. And there isn’t much competition. Inspired by the April SEM SIG, I have dug out this article that I wrote back in 2002 and revised it for your enjoyment.

Our Brains Should Come With an Operating Manual. After years of casually studying perception, human behavior and the nature of reality I have concluded that we should all be born clinging to an operating manual for how our brains work. After screeching through the birth canal we should cozy up with a latte and pour through this tome for a couple of hours before being unleashed on the world. This would save each of us a whole lot of trouble and give us a fighting chance of achieving something approaching our potential. Unfortunately, the way our minds work remains a mystery to us for most of our adolescence, and, in some cases, the remainder of our adult lives. This creates all sorts of difficulties for us and those who cross our paths, including missed opportunities, needless heated arguments about “the truth”, and sometimes even leads to surprising, and totally avoidable, setbacks in our careers and in our life. Often wrong, but never in doubt, some of us end up swaggering through life absolutely certain of many things that are an absolute crock, like our assumptions and beliefs about what is real, what is certain, and what constitutes “the facts”. Let’s pop the hood and take a look at what’s going on here.

Ants Marching on the Back of an Elephant. Have you ever noticed that the only time you really have trouble getting your house key in the door and unlocking it swiftly is when the phone is ringing inside? Any other time, you instinctively get the key in the hole on the first try, and in you go. But when that phone is ringing and you are really concentrating , you just can’t seem to get in the door without some sort of bumbling. What’s up with that?

The Rider and the Horse. Having studied the fight, flight or flee response, I’d have thought that our bodies would be high performing machines when something as important as a ringing phone is at stake. After all, it could be your next job offer! Not so. Maybe fleeing from a tiger is somehow different from unlocking a door, but humans don’t seem to be able to operate optimally when under intense time pressure like the need to answer the phone. Never mind situations where your project is 6 months behind schedule on a critical deadline, or your company is about to run out of funding. Psychologist Dr.Tom Miller says that people have problems remaining cool in a crisis and staying positive when things go wrong because they don’t realize that their best intentions are like a rational rider seated on a wild, out of control horse. No matter what our conscious, rational minds tell us we should do, our conscious mind, the rider, might just as well grab on and hang on, because we are going where the horse, our unconscious mind, is going.

Actually it’s more like our conscious mind is an ant marching on the back of an elephant. Our conscious mind *thinks* that it is in charge, but we are riding on the back of our powerful subconscious mind, under a powerful illusion that we are in control of what’s going on when, in fact, we’re barely aware of what’s happening in our world. Consider this. Our subconscious takes in millions of bits of sensory information every second, while our conscious mind becomes aware of at most 40 bits per second. Of course this is quite fortunate, as it is this filtering that allows us to function in the world. Can you imagine being completely aware and in control of your need to breathe and pump blood, as well as the 5 million or so bits of visual stimuli flooding your retina, the million or so bits of visceral feeling, and the hundred thousand or so bits coming from your taste buds? No, being completely aware of everything around us is not typically a useful state. Don’t go there.

The User Illusion. But it is rather alarming to realize that, out of around 10,000,000 available bits of information each second, somehow our conscious mind is only “allowed” to be aware of 40. I mean, **who** exactly is selecting what to ignore and what to raise to consciousness? According to Tor Norretranders’ book “The User Illusion”, we live in the grip of the intriguing predicament that our unconscious mind is in charge of deciding what to make us consciously aware of.

The subconscious mind is an incredible resource, and yet we can’t manage to directly control it with our conscious mind. Much of my formal education trained me to ignore my subconscious and “stick to the facts.” Understanding how your mind works is kind of like biting your own teeth. It’s tough to do, and reminds me of trying to understand how special relativity works. But the more I learn about the incredible capacity of the subconscious to take in and process information, the more I am coming to trust the subconscious “me” to solutions to challenges in my life through means for which I lack an explanation.

Seven-Plus-or-Minus-Two. I’m a physicist by education. Although I love working with them, I can’t claim to understand how engineers think. Many of my wonderful engineering colleagues demonstrate a preference for analytical thinking and fact-based decisions. On the surface this seems like a good thing. But Professor Manfred Zimmermann of the Institute of Physiology at Heidelberg University wrote, “What we perceive at any moment, therefore, is limited to an extremely small compartment in the stream of information about our surroundings flowing in from the sense organs.” So why continue to rely solely on “the facts?” Why “be reasonable” or “realistic,” as these judgments rely heavily on the conscious mind? Research in 1956 by psychologist George Miller demonstrated that a human is capable of keeping only “seven-plus-or-minus-two” thoughts in his conscious mind at once, and that is possible only when he really puts his mind to it. So what happens where there are more than nine aspects of a situation to consider at once? Faced with wicked complexity, most people just make a decision based on instinct or “gut feel” and then justify their decision rationally. Of course then we have to fool ourselves about that, too, pretending that it was an entirely rational process all along.

Blindsight. Seeing is believing, we’ve all been told. There are, after all, facts, right? But r esearchers have studied a curious phenomenon called “blindsight.” It turns out that it is possible to be able to “see,” but at the same time to be unaware of your ability to see. In studies, blind people were able to “guess” where things were with 100% accuracy, and yet they were not consciously aware that they were optically sensing the objects. In fact, they were incredulous when researchers informed them that they had responded to visual cues with virtually no errors because, HEY, they thought they were blind to them!

Acting on the Basis of Information That We are Not Conscious of. Are you willing to believe that you have access to information that you are unaware of? More importantly, are you willing to put it to use, and act on the basis of this information? Our Silicon Valley culture is obsessed with analytical thinking. Just dip your toe into the field of knowledge about the nature of consciousness and how the brain works, however, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to trust your intuition and listen to your inner wisdom. No one really understands gravity, and yet we all seem to stick to the Earth pretty well. Perhaps we can benefit from some other things we don’t thoroughly understand, like the power of our unconscious minds.

Well, I don’t know what’s right or wrong. I’m living inside of my own self-induced hallucination, too. Give it some thought and let me know what you think. You can reach me at or +1 650 867 0847. And next time, take your time with the keys and let the answering machine pick up the phone.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.