Consciousness is 'like streaming a film in our brain': Our minds process the world as a series of 'bite-sized slices' edited together
- Researchers say our consciousness is not a continuous stream of input
- Instead, the brain processes information in small chunks up to 400ms
- The unconsciousness gaps in between are the rendered out
- Scientists say this two-step model of processing demonstrates a small gap for retrospective processing before we become aware
In the world of time and consciousness, all may not be exactly as it seems.
Our brains constantly process information fed in from our senses to build a picture of the world around us, and our place in it.
But a new study suggests that rather than a smooth flow, we actually process information in small chunks of up to 400 milliseconds, with gaps of unconsciousness in between.
A new study suggests that rather than consciousness being a smooth continuous flow, we actually process information in small 'slices' of time of up to 400 milliseconds long, with gaps of unconsciousness in between where our brains fill in the gaps. Stock image
While it may seem like consciousness is a continuous stream of the world around us, like a live video feed, the team of Swiss scientists believe it is more like a series of still pictures, with the brain filling in the gaps.
Just like watching a movie at the cinema, where the film is projected from a series of pictures on a reel, our brains perceive time in similar static slices processed into a seamless stream.
Researchers, led by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, explain that this series of moments in time may be switched to being 'conscious' hundreds of milliseconds after they are initially perceived, missing out the unconscious 'gaps' when the brain is busy processing.
In effect, it means that instead of a series of jerky images, like an early webcam, we each get our own smooth version of reality thanks to the brain's post-production.
Just like watching a movie at the cinema, where the film is projected from a series of still pictures on a reel, our brains perceive time in similar static slices which are processed into a seamless stream of consciousness. Stock image
TIME SLICES AND CONSCIOUSNESS
To demonstrate the effect, the group showed two coloured objects on a screen - a green disc in the bottom left, followed closely by a red disc in the top right.
When animated, it switches from the green to the red disc rapidly, but to the observer it looks as though the object moves from the bottom left to the top right of the screen, changing from green to red halfway through.
This would indicate that the observer would know about the colour change before it happened, which isn't possible.
Instead, the process demonstrates the conscious experience happens retrospectively - with a person seeing the object at two different positions and then processing the visual information, filling in the gaps.
From this information, it is believed the brain uses a two-stage process for consciousness.
This includes an unconscious stage in which the brain picks out features such as the shape and colour of an objects, in a series of 'time slices'.
A second stage then renders these slices together into a stream of consciousness.
The slight delay in the switch to consciousness makes the entire process seamless, and so it appears as one smooth movement to the viewer.
When the green disc switches to red (left), to the observer it looks as though the object moves, changing colour halfway (right). This would indicate they know about the colour change before it happened, which isn't possible. Instead, the brain processes the information and renders it before the observer becomes aware
But while 400ms is just a blink of an eye, it is still a considerable length of time in terms of reaction.
'The reason is that the brain wants to give you the best, clearest information it can, and this demands a substantial amount of time,' explained Professor Michael Herzog, a psychophysicist at EPFL and lead author of the study.
'There is no advantage in making you aware of its unconscious processing, because that would be immensely confusing.'
Writing in the journal PLOS Biology, the authors explain: 'Our considerations go well beyond perception research.
'They are also crucial for neuroscience and computer vision, which both have to provide answers to the question of what aspects of processing are rendered 'conscious,' and at what time.'
WAYS OUR MINDS WARP TIME
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