80-90% of our perceptions are based on memories rather than what is before us at anyone time, at least according to this article . I’m not quite sure where he gets his statistics from, but I have no problem believing this; there are just so many examples of how this manifests in my life, and I’m a person who really tries hard to be in the present.
This phenomenon first became apparent to me when I was in art school. After a degree in sciences, in which memorising abstract facts passed for learning, it was a real struggle to learn to “see”. I was much more used to thinking than for perceiving.
I would glance at a forest stand, and all kinds of information would emerge in my mind regarding soil moisture, fertility, climate, seral stage and productivity. In art school, I had to become aware of the smell, the appearance of individual leaves. Spider webs shining in a shaft of light suddenly became very important. Learning to actually see shape and shadow, form and colour was actually very difficult. It still is.
We tune things out to keep from being overwhelmed by meaningless stimulus, and so we perceive by comparing minimal input with past experience and make instant conclusions.
In psychology, we call it the 10% hook – an event or experience needs to be only slightly similar to past events – especially traumatic ones – for our brains to decide that it is the same threat. This is why people are so haunted by early trauma: our brains keep yelling at us that it is the same event as when we were defenceless children.
That’s the more dramatic example, but the same process operates very subtly all the time. The way we can drive while daydreaming is another good example. Our brains scan the road keeping one eye out for the unexpected while higher processing centres are pondering something else. We have driven so many times that the brain assumes this time is like all the other times and only need to apply cursory attention.
This is also one of the reasons kids find the world so magical – so much of their experience is new and so they view things with rapt attention, developing memories to make it quicker and easier for the next time they see or experience the same thing.
It’s astounding, really. And I can see how this has a profound impact on how I live my life. I love adventure, crave adventure. But what is adventure? It is the combination of the new and unexpected, coupled with a certain amount of challenge or risk. In the light of what I’ve just said, I figure it’s just the brain wanting to have new experiences and so develop new memories, and therefore grow.
That’s an innate aspect of being human. But the problem is that adventure often requires significant investment in money, time, and effort. Just this week, my son and a friend and I drove all the way to Burns Lake to pick up a school bus I bought at auction. I was feeling restless and needed something outside the mundane. It was an exhausting and fun trip, although quite expensive.
Even with sailing I find I have to keep seeking distant shores and more difficult circumstances to maintain the experience of novelty, to keep learning the new.
I’ve been wondering what I will do about that once we are off the boat. Of course there are many ways to bring about new and challenging circumstances, but I’m starting to think I’ve been approaching it the wrong way. Just suppose it was possible to start seeing the mundane with the eyes of a child? What if I was to train myself to not use old memories (which are just assumptions, really) through which to view the world, but to start seeing it as it is, with each perception based on the immediate moment and not with some template I likely formed years ago.
It’s not an easy task, but Buddhism teaches us to stop living according to what was, but what is now, in the moment. I suspect that if one mastered that approach, every day would be like a miracle, every experience would seem grand and profound.
The one question I would have is, does the mind continue to grow with such immediate perceptions? If we create memories from our experiences to make future experiences faster and easier to process, what happens if we no longer use that cognitive system? Do we see the same old things with greater depth? Or is simply like someone with memory impairment, who re-experiences the same as new all the time, but cannot learn or grow from the experiences?
When I go on an adventure, my mind does in fact grow from the novel experiences. I’ve learned some new things that become part of my memories and future abilities. But seeing the same old thing with “new eyes” – does that increase my understanding of anything, or have I just shut down the process of the “new becoming the old”, which is really what learning is all about.
One of the things I find most disconcerting about aging is the way that certainty falls by the wayside. I used to be a man with very strong opinions and beliefs. Some might still think that as I tend to be forceful and eloquent in debate, but that’s more about the joy of debate itself rather than deeply held beliefs. I have beliefs of course, but I’ve been around the block enough to know that that is all they are: beliefs.
I used to think that my beliefs equated with truth, but no longer. For every argument I can make regarding something, I know there are arguments against them. While I think I can hold my positions in good stead in an argument, that speaks more to my arguing ability rather than my holding of any special knowledge or insight. I’m also very well informed, but all that means is I’m good at repeating what others believe.
This leaves me somewhat in a quandary. I’m finding myself reluctant to speak and to write, because it’s just another asshole talking, and god there are more than enough of those, aren’t there? When you believe you KNOW and others should listen, it’s easy to say what you think. But when you realise you don’t know jack shit and the world is full of people spouting off, maybe it’s just better to humble yourself and shut up.
Ironically, saying what I’m saying right now is a statement of fact, and is most likely just delusional bullshit. We do not know. We cannot know. Yet we act and speak as if we do. And for someone like me who has spent a lifetime analysing and trying to understand the world, it cries for more humility.
Picking up bus in Burns lake