Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, May 11, 2007

Multiple Concurrent Streams of Consciousness

One of the most onerous limitations against which we are forced to labor as human beings is our handicapped stream of consciousness. We seem to be capable of only one each. Why is that? It has been postulated that humanity as a whole may possess its own consciousness, of which its individual components are unaware and to which we are denied access. In the other direction, it has also occurred to some deep thinkers that several smaller components of our own nervous systems may have their own consciousnesses, together comprising the one of which we are aware. And again, they do not have access to our master consciousness, nor are we aware of theirs, if they exist.

But back to our problem. We can pay attention to only one thing at a time, think about only one thing at a time. Yes, it is certainly true that our brains are working at many other tasks, again that we are not aware of. Many difficult problems are sorted out by what we call our subconscious, and then presented to our conscious minds, solved and wrapped in a pretty bow. Another part of our brains responds instinctively to stimuli that our conscious minds haven't even had time to register, such as a sharp object headed at speed directly towards our eye. But still, we have only one stream of consciousness.

What would life be like if we were capable of multiple concurrent streams, all of which we were simultaneously aware? We could be working furiously at a difficult engineering problem and conversing with a colleague and trying to decide what to have for dinner, simultaneously. Think how much we could accomplish. And if each stream were aware of and could communicate with all the others? Sharing information back and forth? By the time we've solved the engineering issue, we have followed up with our colleague and planned our sure-to-be fabulous dinner. What a time saver that ability would be.

It seems to me, although I am no expert, that in addition to adding computer components to our brains in order to augment memory capacity and processing power, adding multiple concurrent streams of consciousness should be a most desirable goal. Sure, I could create multiple versions of myself, each of which could be working independently, but wouldn't it be more pleasing to be aware of each version's awareness simultaneously? I think so.

Consider that what we call "multi-tasking" really is not, in the sense that it is more accurately described as switching rapidly back and forth between tasks. I can only pay attention to one thing at a time. This is the reason why the use of a cell phone while driving presents such a danger to life, limb and auto. When my attention is focused on a conversation, it will necessarily be diverted from the road. Even though my reptilian brain will alert me to a rapidly decelerating vehicle directly in my path in order to get my attention back on the road, my conversation will have to be figuratively placed on hold while I deal with the traffic problem.

Performing a cursory web search on this topic, I was not successful at finding any useful information, so if you are aware of any good references, please pass them along in a comment.

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Somerson said...

In the 1920's a vaudevillian performer named Harry Kahne claimed to be (kind of) capable of what you're describing. He also claims it can be taught to anyone, given they commit to the training.

Now, Kahnetic mentalism isn't exactly two distinct streams of consciousness but, if the training works (I haven't tried it myself) you can achieve a number of the things you discuss. The outcome certainly resembles multiple streams of consciousness.

In essence, Kahn claims his course can double and even triple the amount of information you can process consciously at one time.

Here is one of the few videos of Mr. Kahn's wonderful performance:

Here is the course in 'multiple mentality':

Anonymous said...

I never have fewer than two concurrent streams of consciousness (one of which is devoted to music), and usually have between three and five. My limit appears to be nine, but I found that level very difficult to maintain for more than a few minutes.

When I drive, I typically have one or two streams of consciousness thinking about lane position, distance to the car ahead, speed, road signs, potential hazards, navigation, etc., all doing task switching to share the use of my eyes. Sometimes I listen to audio books while driving, so that in addition to dealing with the current driving situation and recalling music I'm listening to a voice speaking, picturing a scene, analyzing the story, and sometimes also thinking about what I'll be doing when I get to work. If I need to focus on driving I'll redirect the extra streams to the task at hand. In that case I lose track of the story and have to go back.