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Consciousness is a “duty cycle”

May 27th, 2012 Kevin

What is this post about?

Here I suggest using the term “duty cycle” to replace the word consciousness. When people are “mindful” and “present,” their duty cycles are on. When not, the cycle is off.

What does “duty cycle” mean?

Duty cycle is an engineering term that identifies how long a product like a cell phone or computer will be on during a particular cycle, for example, five hours in a day.

What’s wrong with using the word mindfulness?

Nothing, except when you try to understand what it means. More familiar is “attention span,” although it is not sufficient. Intent, focus, and bandwidth can be in there too.

Say some more?

Well, as a kid my mother would say, “Kevin! Pay attention.” Problem: I had no idea how to do that well. Intent was scarce, focus non-existent, and bandwidth questionable. Doh.

Are you challenging your mother’s desire for you to pay more attention?

No. I get that she wanted me to be fully conscious. Instead, I wandered off absent-minded and got into lots of trouble. Knowing consciousness is a duty cycle would have helped me.

You wanted mom to say, “Kevin, turn on your duty cycle,” right?

Sure. If she taught me what duty cycle meant I could have broken down my efforts, kind of like starting in one corner to clean a dirty room, I could check in with bandwidth, then attention, etc.

And the higher the duty cycle number, the more fully conscious we become?

You got it.

Did Buddha have a really high duty cycle that was on all the time?

I have no clue.

Mindfulness requires intent and focus (i.e., attention span plus bandwidth)?

Yes. The more of each of those we have, the more fully conscious and mindful we become.

How is duty cycle like mindfulness?

First, consider this formula:

Mindfulness = intent x focus (attention span x bandwidth).

Now consider the same formula with a slight difference:

Duty cycle = intent x focus (attention span x bandwidth).

It turns out it is easier for us to consider consciousness as an engineering term that we can break down into several parts, instead of calling it mindfulness, which sounds like a spiritual term that causes confusion the same way the terms faith and belief can be confusing.

Can you tell us what each of the components of your formula mean?

Sure. Intent refers to your conscious intent, attention span is the amount of time you can hold on to your attention, and bandwidth is how much you can take in at any one instant.

Can you give us an example?

Say you have intent to listen to a child talking. The problem is you are absolutely fatigued so your attention span is non-existent. That means your duty cycle is going to be 0 because when attention span is 0, any intent you have, no matter how high, gets cancelled out by your lack of attention (any number of intent x 0 = 0).

Will you show me it as a formula again?


Duty cycle = 100 [intent] x focus (0 [attention span] x 7 [bandwidth]) = 0.

I made intent = 100, which means I am 100% intending to talk to the child. I use bandwidth = 7 because that is about as high as we go mostly (seven bits of information in one instant kept in short term memory). The trouble is, if my attention span = 0 then my duty cycle = 0, despite a great bandwidth and intent. That kid can talk all he wants, I simply will not be able to connect with him.

Remind me why I should use the term “duty cycle” instead of “mindfulness?”

Engineers use the term to measure when a thing needs to be on or off. I find the term more precise then the concept of mindfulness when I need to consider if someone is “fully present.” Since it is an engineering term it makes sense to break it down into the component parts of consciousness.

Is there a reason we should purposefully turn off the duty cycle at times?

Absolutely. Having our duty cycles on all the time wears us out. Consciousness is resource intensive (e.g., uses more glucose) and redirects how our brain communicates with itself in a way that can cause the brain to explain, “Hey, I don’t like this effort all that much!” This is precisely why will power is fleeting: it takes lots of energy to summon our will power and the brain usually tries to conserve as much of energy as possible.

And your point?

So, sometimes what our brains want and what the conscious “we” want conflict with one another. Reducing that conflict is a good idea. One way to do that is to learn how to turn off our duty cycles on purpose. Doing that can be a wonderful trick for calming down, relaxing, and rejuvenating. Although I strongly suggest doing something other than TV.

What’s wrong with TV?

Watching TV increases the risk of cognitive impairment. Perhaps brains find TV too convenient, as the TV appears to reduce brain function when it is on.

What good is knowing the parts of the duty cycle formula, like bandwidth?

You can work on the parts you know are keeping you from being fully conscious, if that’s important to you. Bandwidth issues tend to be a short term memory problem, which you can improve with practice. Same with attention span and intent. All of the elements can be worked on, email me for more on that:


Knowing consciousness is a duty cycle can help us understand how we can be more fully conscious and present in the moment?

You bet. Good luck using the concept of “duty cycle” to increase your attention and focus.


Kevin Leahy

Austin, Texas


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