What is information? We always talk about it and you hear it here and there but what does it really mean? Because if it doesn’t mean anything concrete then what is the point in using the word? We say that somebody gave us information about something or something gave us information about something. When we see that our front door is open and the house is ransacked then this gives us information about the possibility of having been robbed. The most obvious information is speech. When we talk to each other we are almost always exchanging information. Of course there are also conversations where no information is really being passed. But normally we tell each other things that we want to get out of ourselves, things that are interesting and things that are bothering ourselves. What are interesting things? Things that are interesting are things that are new to us, that we haven’t heard before and that we want to know about. The more surprising something is the more information we receive. What’s more interesting, that you got a 2.0 in the exam you were sure was going to be good or a close 4.0 in an exam you had never thought in your wildest dreams you were going to pass? I have never been more ecstatic than when I received the news that I had passed this one exam that I desperately needed to keep on studying and which I had serious doubts about. Events that we expect aren’t that interesting when they actually happen, because the more you expect something the more it’s like it has already happened.
You are not the least surprised when you move your arm to perform an action. You can’t be since you wanted this to happen, your expectation made it happen. Only when your arm does something entirely different than you intended are you surprised and ask yourself what the hell is wrong with your damn arm. So if something is information or not and how much information it is depends on the unexpectedness of it. If there is a 99% chance that your favorite football team will win the game because the enemy team is in a really low league then you won’t be surprised if they do, but you’ll be really surprised if they lose. The next day you’ll probably respond with ‘Yeaah duuh’ to someone who tells you that your team won and ‘Holy crap for real?’ to someone who just told you that they lost. In both cases they may use the same amount of words but they don’t carry the same amount of information. So information depends heavily on your expectations. Someone else who received information before the game that this low league team had a really unfair advantage somehow, is not at all surprised about the outcome. Furthermore if you didn’t even know these two teams existed and had no expectations then this isn’t interesting to you at all, you’re not asking any questions about it. We automatically seek things that we find interesting or curious. We want to know the answers to our deepest questions. You don’t give a shit about things you don’t care about, they aren’t interesting.
We need to be looking for things in order to see them. Eyes evolved for sunlight to hit their retinas, they are begging for information in the form of light waves. They don’t give a shit about sound waves and therefore they aren’t information for them. That’s what ears are for. Listening to what someone has to say means that you open your heart and actually question your beliefs that may run against what this person tells you. Without questioning your beliefs there is no information, since information depends on your uncertainty. If nothing anyone says will sway you then you are ignoring things, you aren’t receiving any information. Information implies that there are things that you are not sure about and which you want to know more about. It is selection, selection between alternative hypotheses in your head. But we still haven’t defined what information is really. In the end information is always something specific, be it words spoken aloud and transmitted through sound waves, or words written down on a page and transmitted via light waves reaching your eyes and you translating the symbols into spoken language. Be it a horrible taste that tells you that something is wrong with the food you are eating or be it a burnt smell that makes you run into your kitchen to check for fire. Information is always very specific. And we humans cannot receive information through any other channel than our bodily senses. If you had a brain without nerve endings in your body or without eyes or a nose, anything that is influenced by the outside world, then you would receive no information whatsoever about the world out there. You would be blind in every possible way. But what is the core of information? What we want to find is a general notion of what information is, not specific examples of it. We want to know what does not change when we go from one sense to another, we want to know what seeing and tasting and hearing have in common when we say that they all process information. What is information?
As I said in the beginning, information is something that informs you of something else. When somebody tells you that you look like shit today you might go to the bathroom and check your face, but only if you care about how you look. That is the most important fact about information, it is the reduction of uncertainty. And therefore you must first be uncertain and looking for an answer in order to be informed. Somebody who is self-conscious about his looks will be very hurt and embarrassed if someone tells them that they look like shit today. This is news to him, this is shocking. If you ask someone how you look today and he responds with ‘I don’t know’, you will probably be somewhat frustrated because this isn’t information for you. He could’ve just as well said nothing. This didn’t reduce your uncertainty. But wait, if something is information or not depends entirely on your expectations, your questions. So if we now hold this ‘I don’t know’ in memory and ask ourselves if this person is interested in us we might conclude that he likely is not since he doesn’t seem to care how we look. So his response to our actual question gave us information about something we hadn’t asked yet. It’s very much like the experience of hearing a friend asking you something and immediately saying ‘Huh?’ because you didn’t understand him but then realizing after a second that you very much understood what he said, your brain just needed some time to sort things out. You had one piece of information the whole time but your brain needed to ask the right questions after the fact in order to really understand it. Same thing with this picture here:
You may have already seen it but if not take a moment to just look at it. If all you see are random blobs then remember that sight because once I tell you what to look for and you find it you can never really unsee it again.
Ready? If you look closely you can see a dog in the picture, specifically a dalmatian. He is right in the middle sniffing the ground with his head pointed to the upper right corner of the picture. See it? Here as well we have the same old picture, the same piece of information but you need the expectation of a dog to prime your unconscious enough to actually see it. Normally we don’t have to ask these questions consciously. Our unconscious self does that for us, going through all kinds of possibilities and hypotheses until it finds the one that fits best. Another good example is a doctor who has performed a lot of autopsies. He sees things in a body the normal person has no idea about. He knows exactly what to look for and which questions to ask. The body gives him a huge amount of information in the form of answers to his questions. In the end he may conclude that this person may seem to have drowned but was already strangled before thrown into a river, a possible homicide. But he definitely didn’t ask himself that exact question when he received the body did he? He just went with his intuitions and asked the questions that were interesting to him. Because that’s all we have going for us in the end. It’s what leads to all kinds of breakthroughs and innovations and revolutionary theories. Following your curiosity and making lucky findings along the way. Each answer leads to another question and to another answer and so forth. And we start with the unusual, the unexpected. Because that is what is interesting to us. That is what gives us the most information.
If you take one thing away from this post let it be: Information is the reduction of uncertainty. And in order to reduce your uncertainty you must first have uncertainty. Yeah that’s a no-brainer thanks for that Marvin. No but seriously this is what I’ve been trying to get at this whole post long. Questioning things is the first step to gaining knowledge. Without questions there would be no information. And one and the same line of words or observations can be totally different information for different people, it depends entirely on which questions you ask. That also sheds some light on what we actually mean when we say that the brain processes information. The brain is the one creating information in the first place! Without the right connections sensory stimuli carry no information whatsoever. They are only information if they reduce uncertainty, if they put your mind in one state or the other, if they answer a question. And they can answer all kinds of different questions, some better than others. What you make of something depends entirely on what you associate with it. This brings us back full circle to prediction, one of the first topics I had in this blog and arguably the main reason brains exist. Without prediction, which is simply asking questions and forming hypotheses about the world, there is no uncertainty and there can be no information. Information is the resolution of multiple competing predictions, selecting one from many, reducing your uncertainty.
So what then is information? Information is anything that answers your question.
P.S. Whilst writing this post I was somewhat ‘uncertain’ and went looking for some information and found that someone had already written a 5 part blog series on ‘What is information?’. Check out the post here: What is information? Really really good post and clarified for me what information is. Also a lot more rigorous and mathematically defined than my post. So if you want to know more go there. The guy, Chris Adami, who is a professor for biology and physics, has awesome ideas about life and evolution and lots of great posts!