Human bandwidth… what’s your throttle?

If you’ve never read Straw Dogs by John Gray, you should. It’s an arresting book centred on a critique of humanism and the concept of progress and materialism. At times it really spoke to me, and at others it induced a very furrowed brow. Either way, I’m really glad I read it.

There was one paragraph that really stood out to me in a chapter on free will. Gray discusses the ‘bandwidth of consciousness’. He cites figures from Vincent Deary who has calculated that overall we process some 14 million bits of information per second. But the bandwidth of conscious action and thought, however, is only 18 bits!

If true (unfortunately the name of the calculator is cited but not the paper), then perhaps we should be less concerned with pushing up the speed of our internet connections, and spend some more time on reducing the throttling on our minds.


Been digging around for this Vincent Deary chap. Think this is him.

I didn’t find the the paper with the cited figures in it, but I did find a paper by Keith Sutherland who thinks the ‘bandwidth of consciousness figures’  claimed by Gray are bizarre. Not what I was after exactly, but at least it’s an alternative take.

What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Human bandwidth… what’s your throttle?

  1. This was brought to my attention by a recent email to me, thought I would clarify…

    My consultation to John was very informal, one off the cuff email, but the figures are not so bizzare. They are based on the body of research, begun in the fifties, that tries to link cybernetics and information theory to human consciousness. For instance Professor Manfred Zimmermann has a chapter in Human Physiology (Springer Verlag, 1986) called Neurophysiology of Sensory Systems in which he argues that “the maximal flow of the process of conscious sensory perception is about 40 bits/sec, many orders of magnitude below that taken in by receptors….our perception then would appear to be limited to a minute part of the abundance of information available as sensory input.”

    That’s one of the more recent estimates Im aware of, don’t know where research is at today. But the figures from the fifties onwards always come out much the same, consciousness processing/perception as being limited to somewhere between 7 and 40 bits. The best summary of the research I have come across is in the The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders (Penguin 1998) in his chapter The Bandwith of Consciousness, where the above quote comes from.

    You could argue that the assignment of bits per sec rates to consciousness and unconscious processes (esepcially the latter) is essentially arbitrary, but not to the extent that I made up the figures! I was just passing on existing research.

    Hope that clarifies

  2. I found the ‘bandwidth of consciousness’ bit of Straw Dogs very surprising too. I tracked down a copy of ‘The User Illusion’ (the book that Vincent mentions, above) and tried to make sense of it in my blog (see url).

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