Reawakening Our Senses

In the absence of prior expectation of their differences, many sensory stimuli get categorised in our minds as the essentially the same.

Categorisation is a necessary evolutionary capacity without which we would have been wiped out long ago while trying to recognise hungry tigers, bears and wolves as threats. But it does result in a simplified mental model of the world, and if it's engaged too soon in the face of new experiences it can prevent them being adequately recognised as distinct. Once I've said 'the sea' or 'blackbird' or 'rain' I tend to seek no further, dismissing the detail that makes the individual experience unique.

Furthermore, a category set that has developed in an over-simple or impoverished sensory environment may be too crude to allow new experiences extraneous to that environment to register at all. In the most basic terms, all bird song sounds the same unless we learn to listen.

But how can we learn to listen? A way I advocate is to voluntarily stop conscious thought and pay continuous non-critical attention to as much as possible of what is going on round one - exercising attention without considering, analysing or categorising the incoming stimuli. I call this 'naive attention'. It's a condition comparable to the Theravada Buddhist state of Sati or mindfulness, as described by Vipassana master Henepola Gunaratana: 1
'When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. That is a stage of Mindfulness. Ordinarily, this stage is very short. It is that flashing split second ... just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally and segregate it from the rest of existence.'

Although the practices are very different, Vipassana meditation and the exercise of naive attention have the same objective - to extend the moment of mindfulness; to make it continuous. But why should we be interested in doing this? Gunaratana again: 'The object of Vipassana practice is to learn to pay attention. We think we are doing this already, but that is an illusion. ... We are simply not paying enough attention to notice that we are not paying attention.'

Although we are unaware of it, the majority our apparent conscious experience moment to moment is synthesised in the mind from memories of past seemingly similar experiences: we see and hear to a great extent what we expect to see and hear, based on what we have previously seen and heard. The current sensory stimulus usually makes only a small contribution to the subjective experience - primarily acting as a trigger for memory. That's why we can conduct a conversation in a noisy street where as little of one third of the speech can actually be heard. And it's why optical illusions confuse us - because they create a conflict between the mentally synthesised and the directly observed. This synthesised component of awareness is an evolutionary advantage in some ways. It simplifies and speeds up decision-making. But it has its downside. If it becomes a habit, ignoring the other two thirds can prevent us registering new experiences as unique - in effect it can prevent us learning.

In the mindful state, past experience is silenced. We become uncritically receptive to incoming sensory information without selection, emphasis or judgement.
It's a condition in which much greater use can be made of the incoming information - one in which rapid learning can take place, quite possibly similar to the mental state of an infant.

Stilling the preconceptions that pigeonhole sensory experiences into existing categories allows us to perceive new phenomena in their own right and add them to our repertoire. Experiences that were previously undifferentiated by the mind can become recognised as distinct. That may trigger the creation of new, more subtly defined categories that enrich our experience of the world and potentially allow us to respond more appropriately to what happens around us. According to Daniel Levitin,2 a record producer who went on to become a neuroscientist, 'Objects that may create identical, or nearly identical, patterns of stimulation on our eardrums ... may actually be different entities. ... we need to abstract out information that is critical to creating a unified representation of the object.'

But how can I know what is critical to abstract unless I have first absorbed and recognised the whole? If I can know, meaning may emerge. If not, I may completely miscategorise the experience using an inappropriate existing frame of reference. In a classic experiment, subjects were played a recording of a cat purring. Half of them were told in advance what it really was, but the other half were told it was someone snoring. The first group found it pleasant, whereas the others were revolted by the sound.

But the benefits of avoiding premature categorisation can be more far-reaching than just avoiding disgust at a cat purring. While working alongside experienced studio engineers, Levitin learned to detect the subtle differences in sound reproduction between different brands of recording tape. He comments 'Once I knew what to listen for, I could tell Ampex from Scotch or Agfa tape as easily as I could tell an apple from a pear or an orange.'

So there you have it: 'Once I knew what to listen for,' - that is, once Levitin had developed a set of suitably subtle categories. A violin virtuoso develops refined categories of pitch in order to stay in tune, and a really good motor mechanic can do much the same with the sounds of an engine. Knowing what to listen for, he can tell you what's wrong with your car just by the sounds it makes. It's a capacity we could all benefit from using, whatever our sphere of activity, and the exercise of naive attention is one way I've found to learn what to listen for.

1 Gunaratana, Ven. Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications, 2002

2 Levitin, Daniel. This is your Brain on Music. London, Atlantic Books, 2007

condensed and adapted from part three of my lecture "The Subtle Sounds of Nature" - The Institute for Cultural Research, June 2010.

Go to Part Four