Although it’s possible to directly connect with what we experience through our senses, most of the time we mentally interpret and evaluate what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, so experience the world indirectly. An example of direct sensory experience could be when we smell something for the first time and stay with the aroma rather than rush off in thought.
Information from our senses is constantly received about the world around us. This information is perceived as we make sense of, interact with, and experience our world. The brain adds rich information and knowledge to what we receive through the senses, to help us make sense of the world. Operating in a vacuum, the brain only knows what it receives as signals that are produced by the senses. For instance, the retina at the back of the eye translates light into small electrical signals that are transmitted through the optic nerve to the visual cortex and other areas of the brain that identify objects in the world. Another way of understanding the difference between raw and direct sensory experience and perception is to think of a microphone connected to a computer with an AI program running. The microphone picks up the raw sound from the environment and the AI software interprets and labels the sounds. For instance, the sound of a chaffinch, or the hum of distant traffic.
The main functions of perception are to anticipate and interpret the world around us, so we can act effectively. Perception evolved over millions of years and is a good example of the survival of the fittest. Our early animal ancestors had a better chance of survival and passing on their genes if they could recognize food sources and anticipate predators faster and more accurately than others.
One way of exploring perception is to split it into nature and nurture layers. The nature layer is the one that we are born with and inherit through our genetic evolution, and the nurture layer is what we add after birth, from learned experience and knowledge about the world. The nature layer is innate and provides us with useful ways of understanding the world. In an experiment, when a baby was shown moving images of a lorry driving away or towards them on different screens with the sound getting louder, their attention was drawn towards the one approaching. The nurture layer is conceptual and emotional and is to do with learned and constructed knowledge, cultural beliefs, feelings, and behaviours. For instance, the historical beliefs that the world was flat and at the centre of the universe.
Although perception is fundamentally useful and not something we can do without, there are some downsides. For a start, perception can be wrong and is not always reality. We match the voice of a ventriloquist to the face of a puppet, or, at the cinema, the soundtrack to the speaking character on a screen. These are examples of how our mind bends reality to make sense of the world. Most perception is fast and automatic, so operates below normal awareness. Perception is based on shortcuts and best guesses by the brain, so we can easily misperceive things and see the world in a limited or fixed way. The in-built evolutionary biases of perception that influence us to interpret things as pleasant or unpleasant, operate at a felt-sense level within the body. These can make us reactively avoid, resist or want to cling onto some things that enter our experience, which is generally not the most useful approach. Also, the strongly held and entrenched beliefs about ourselves and the world may well limit possibilities. If you were a medieval sailor, you may be afraid of travelling too far in case you fell off the edge of the world. With mindful awareness, we can observe whether or not our perception serves us and others. For instance, we may notice that we entertain limiting and judgemental beliefs about ourselves and others, which we can change once we become aware of them.
If we imagine sense and perception on a spectrum, we will have direct sense contact at one end and indirect, conceptual perception at the other. With mindfulness, we are working towards the more direct end of this spectrum; reclaiming this rich, often missed, element of experience by coming to our senses and valuing how things really are, rather than how we think they are. This allows us to notice and more fully appreciate the world around us in all its rich beauty and wonder, including appreciating what it is to be human, that is so easily taken for granted.
Suggested weekly practice
- Appreciating how amazing your senses and perception really are as you go about the world. For instance, with vision, how the light enters your eyes, how the image is formed, and made sense of.
- Exploring sights, sounds, and smells to see if it’s possible to make direct contact with what you receive through your senses.
- Noticing how your perception may have an in-built bias, judgements, and ways of interpreting the world that may not always serve you or others well.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore your senses and perception.