The Bandwidth of Consciousness


The Bandwidth of Consciousness

I know we have not discussed consciousness per se, however, we were briefly introduced to memory capacity regarding the amount of information our brains are capable of storing. I am intrigued with information capacity and the ability, or inability to hold large amounts of information. Memory capacity has different ranges according to our lectures. These range differences depend on the type of memories such as sensory, working, or long-term. There are also differences in explicit (conscious retrieval) and implicit (unconscious retrieval). There is evidence that information bandwidth is greatly influenced by variations in conscious processing and unconscious processing. I feel that these relationships are related to the lessons we have learned.

Scientists are convinced that the amount of information we consciously perceive is extremely small compared to the amount of information received by the sense organs. Dr. Zimmerman suggest that we only perceive around forty bits of information per second (Zimmerman, 1986); while according to Zimmerman, our sensory systems are picking up information flow at a rate of eleven million bits per second. This implies that much information is getting processed every second, but, only a tiny portion of that information is processed at a conscious level. We experience this when we tried to perform the memory test based on Millers theory of the magical number seven, plus or minus two (Miller, 1956).

When we attempted Millers memory span task we were exposed to many other stimuli besides the digits; yet, I bet very few of us could recall anything else at that moment other than the digits we were trying to remember. Nevertheless, there was probably sound coming from somewhere in the house, the temperature of the room, the smell of the room, the taste you were experiencing, and the sensation of sight, all of which were receiving massive amounts of information. Despite all the other stimuli in the room, we probably only remember performing that task, and we probably cannot recall any of the digits we stored in STM that night. We were experiencing consciousness via whatever system of attention were currently experiencing.

These theories based on information processing would also have relevance regarding the ability to form new implicit memories for patients that have suffered LTM damage. We read about the case of H.M. H.M could not form new explicit memories, however, he did form new implicit memories (procedural memories). The fact that H.M cannot consciously recall or retrieve memories from his LTM does not negate the fact that the information received during the performance of a new task was still processed. There is also evidence of this unconscious processing in the lecture explaining the cocktail party effect. We may not have been aware of a conversation a few feet away until we are cued by a familiar word, then our attention shifts and we become consciously aware of a different conversation.

We also discussed how we make errors when attempting to recall memories. When trying to recall memories, our brain is reconstructing a re-presentation of what we perceived occurred. Richard Gregory (1989) explains a representation of external stimuli as a hypothesis or a prediction by our brain of what is actually being perceived. Information is sensed, relayed, and processed. During this process most of the information is discarded to provide you with a representation of reality based on our focused attention. What we are focused on will result in our conscious experience. Norretranders (1998) refers to the discarding of information as exformation.

In summary, we evaluated the term information as it pertains to perception, consciousness, and psychology in general. Information in this context is the measure of energy flowing into our senses. This information is the base of all our experiences and memories. How we perceive reality and encode memories is based on the amount of information we can process per second.


Gregory, R. (1989). Interview, Bristol, Eng with Tor Norretranders. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin Group: New York, NY.

Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two. Psychological Review, 63, 81-87.

Zimmerman, M. (1986). Neurophysiology of Sensory Systems, Robert F. Schmidt Ed., Fundamentals of Sensory Physiology. Springer-Verlag: Berlin.

Norretranders, T. (1998). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin Group: New York, NY.


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