Introduction to Human Perception

Perception is the interpretation of sensory information by the brain. It's influenced at the lowest level by the instinctive drives and immediate priorities - fighting, flight, feeding and reproduction. But in humans and many other higher animals it's overridingly framed by accumulated experience.

So unless we take voluntary control of our perception, it's essentially conditioned by the environment we spend most of our time in. For most of us these days, that means a noisy, busy urban environment in which most of our sensory input is either irrelevant to us or intrinsically meaningless.

We have developed two typical perceptual responses to this environment. One is concentration on a chosen object in the external world to the exclusion of other incoming stimuli, and the other is going on auto pilot - shutting down our responses to the external world as far as possible and losing ourselves in our own thoughts.

Effective as these responses can be among the bustle of the modern urban environment, they work less well elsewhere.

The specialist bird watcher - whose purpose is to focus on, identify and document a specific member of the ensemble using prior knowledge - can use concentrative attention exclusively. But as wild soundscape recordists, we're interested in cultivating our ability to recognise as much as possible of what is going on in an often unfamiliar natural environment so we can eventually make sense of it as a complete ensemble. So we need a different kind of attention - a broad unfocused awareness that is nevertheless alert.

For adults accustomed to an urban environment, exercising unfocused attention is often quite difficult to begin with. We are generally so swamped with stimuli that we have cultivated the capacity to filter out everything except what we choose to concentrate on at the present moment. Alternatively we drift, inattentive and not alert, maybe thinking our own thoughts but largely oblivious to what is going on round us. The third way - broadly attentive and alert - takes practice to exercise, but is hugely useful, as it allows us to observe much more than we would if we were to concentrate on a chosen object of attention.