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Turning the Tables on Perception

An Introspective Inquiry Into the Nature of Experience.

What is it like being a conscious human being living in the world? This experience is something we all share, but rarely think or talk about. I want to talk about this experience and take some observations from my own experiences with my perceptual faculties, and apply them more generally to all human beings. While you’re reading I invite you to take a close look at your own perceptions and sensations, really explore what it is like, because these faculties of observation are our personal window into the world. They are what makes us human.

As humans we get the opportunity to experience the world using our uniquely human senses. We know the world through the five primary sensory perceptions that our ancestors evolved and developed over millennia. We know the sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells of the world because of the work that has been done over countless generations to evolve our capacity to experience these things. The five senses combine together to produce your individual experiential point-of-view. Everything you will ever know of the world outside of your body is experienced through and within the constraints of your point-of-view. All that we know comes to us through these sensory channels. Everything we picked up as kids, learned in school, read in books, even this post, all of it is information acquired through our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Evolved from the first single celled organisms, billions of years ago, our bodies and brains provide us with these incredibly rich experiential ways of gathering information and insight about the world beyond our skin.

Our senses gather information from the world around us, but the exchange of information actually occurs at the boundary of our body. The light from our surroundings has to hit our retina for us to see it. The sounds we hear first vibrate through the air, which then reaches our ears to vibrate tiny hairs inside. Scents are experienced when molecules in the air contact specialized receptors in our noses. This contact makes a change that causes the nerves to initiate an electrical signal. The signal then propagates through our nervous system where it is interpreted throughout different areas of the brain, and finally arises as something we experience. Each of our senses follow this path of sensation through to interpretation and finally to experience, and it is the experience of the sensation that occurs in your mind. The experiences of your sensory point-of-view is a mental experience, being that it occurs in the mental space that only you have access to. Nobody else can share your senses. They are a private experience in your mind. If we were on a walk together, we would agree that we are having the same sights, sounds, scents, etc., but each of our personal experiences would be entirely our own.

The only other experiences you have, ones that are not sensory experiences, are of the thoughts, feelings, and imaginations of your mind. These are also private and known only to you. Your mental experiences may be words or emotions, or reproductions of your senses that you imagine in your mind. Mental experiences are very similar to the experience of our senses; similar in the way they appear to have a duration in time, and a boundary to distinguish one thought from another. They are the objects that we sense in our mind, in the same way that we sense objects in the world with our bodily senses. But they are also different in the way that they don’t maintain existence in the same way objects we experience with our senses do. Thoughts and feelings come and go, but the rock outside my window is still there day after day. I can conjure an image of that rock in my mind and imagine that it moves or changes, but the original rock stays just where it always was. In this way we have agency over the objects within our mind, but not the objects perceived by our senses.

Sense perception of external objects and mental sensation of internal objects comprise the entirety of your experience. If you think about it, everything that has ever happened to you is either something sensed by the faculties of the body, or some thought, feeling, or imagination that arises in the mind. For all these various types and kinds of experiences of objects, there has to someone to whom these experiences happen, a subject who is the experiencer of these experiences. But who exactly is it in you that is experiencing?

This may seem like a silly question because the answer is so obvious, but it helps to be clear. The part of you that experiences is what, in english, we call “I” or “self”. Experience is something that happens to you, the one you refer to as “I”. You tell a story about your day, and say, “I did this, I saw that”. We refer to the self by saying “I sensed this and I thought that”. The self is imbued with the ability to have subjective experience; this property is what is called consciousness, or awareness.

If you take a moment, and ask your self, “Am I aware? Am I conscious?”, there isn’t anyone in existence who could honestly say, “No.” It is one thing we can all agree on. I know that I am aware of the experiences that I am having. This awareness of my experience is undeniable to me. It is a truth that cannot be refuted. Some may try to argue that I don’t exist, that I am just a illusion conjured by their mind, but I know that is false. I know that I am aware of my existence. What’s more, I know that this has been true for every waking moment of my life. I know it is true for myself, and I am certain it is true for you as well.

So what does this mean? It is so simple and ordinary that it seems trivial, but the implications are extraordinary. The fact that I have been aware every moment of my life is undeniable, and what’s more, the quality of that awareness is always the same. No matter what experience I am having, weather a beautiful view across a valley, or a moment of sadness over a loss, I am aware of that experience. The core experience of being aware of whatever it is that is happening, has always been there and hasn’t changed. It is the only thing that hasn’t changed actually. Everything else is in a constant state of flux. The sights I see and sounds I hear change in every moment. My body ages and gets hurt and heals. My surroundings get altered, gather dust and slowly decay. Even that rock outside will eventually wear down and crumble. My mind is moving the fastest, always thinking and feeling, or imagining and planing, multitudes of mental objects come into my awareness all the time and fade away, but this ground state of being aware of the experiences is always there.

I like to use the analogy of a turntable to visualize this idea. Think of a gramophone for playing a vinyl record. On the spinning platter is a record with the title “My Life”. Above the platter, suspended by the tone arm, hangs the needle. This is the most important part of the turntable, as any audiophile will tell you, for the needle is the part where the music is expressed from the groove in the vinyl. The vinyl groove has tiny waves precisely etched into it that can recreate the sounds that were captured by the original recording. The song begins when the needle is placed on the record and begins to vibrate with the grooves cut into the vinyl.

The first notes that play on the record “My Life” are the very first things the you ever experienced of your life. The sensations we experience come and go, creating the melody and the beat. Some of the notes may be harmonious, while others discordant. Some may linger, while others pop in quickly, and disappear just as fast. These various notes of experience begin and end in succession, fading in and fading out, and as the record spins, the symphony of your life comes together, composed of the notes of your experience which are the objects in your sensory and mental field of awareness. The song is being played by the band made up of your five senses, but the whole song is being produced and mixed by your mind, being as the mind appears to have choice and agency over what we pay attention to and how our experience is interpreted.

We can’t choose the circumstances of our lives—the place into which we’re born, the people in our lives, the culture and climate of the world—but our mind, as the producer of our song, can choose what to bring into focus in the mix, and what tone or timbre to amplify. The mind adds flavor to the experiences with the addition of thoughts and imagination. Our feelings and emotions add color and mood to the raw data of our senses. And it is this remixing of our sensations, reinterpreting our experiences, that gives our mind the ability to control the overall tone and quality of our experience. This is our will, our ability to change what we focus our attention on.

Two people can go for a walk to the park together and experience nearly the exact same sensations while walking around. They take in the same sights of the trees, hear the same sounds of the birds, smell the same perfume of the flowers, but the mental color added can make for two very different interpretations and judgments about that day in the park. If one is depressed, they could choose to focus on the wilting flowers and sharp thorns, while the other, if they’re happy, looks at the blue sky and green trees. Each person has their own perspective and point-of-view granted by their senses, but the minds ability to focus on certain qualities, and inject thoughts and feelings, can completely transform the final mix of the song, and ultimately what each person might recall about that day.

This record player analogy brings up the issue of free will. If you believe in fate then the gramophone is playing back the record, the past and future events of our life are fixed on the record. Frozen in the vinyl. If you prefer to believe we have free will then the analogy works as if the gramophone is making a recording. A gramophone can be used to record sounds in essentially the same way that they’re played back, but in reverse. It does this by funneling sound waves, which are vibrations in the air, through the horn, to a needle, which vibrates in resonance with the vibrations of the air. This vibration is captured by cutting the groove in the record as it passes below the needle. Either way works for the illustrative purposes of this analogy, because the needle remains at the center, and from the needles perspective all that it knows is the vibrations, so with this in mind I’ll continue with the imagery of playing back the record.

The rich and vivid song of your life is expressed in the present moment through the vibrations of the needle of awareness. Just as the song is revealed by the vibrating needle, the experiences you’re having are revealed in your awareness of them. The music doesn’t come forth from the record until the needle is dancing in the groove. The record contains the information of the music, but on its own it is indecipherable. It’s just grooves in the acetate. Through the movement of the record on the turntable the music comes alive through the dancing vibration of the needle. The needle itself is still, held in one place by the tone arm, but is being excited by passing movement of the grooves on the record below, just as awareness is always present, witnessing your experiences. The needle doesn’t add anything to the song, just as your awareness doesn’t alter your experience. The needle itself isn’t changing, it is only being excited by the vibration. So too, awareness itself isn’t changing, it is simply excited by what it’s experiencing.

When we listen to music it makes us feel as if we are in the same room as the musicians when they were recorded. The recording could be thought of as an audio hologram of the original players and instruments etched into the vinyl. In our analogy the life we experience is conjured into being by the vibrations experienced by the needle of awareness, and the experiences of the senses come alive like a hologram in the present moment. Each of our sensory instruments play their parts, and our mind brings them together, and it all comes alive in a singular point; the pin-point of awareness. The needle knows only the vibrations, and the needle itself is still and doesn’t change. Every experience, past, present and future, emerges through the excitation of the singular point of awareness. As the needle is excited by the passing groove, the vivid symphony emerges. Through every note, bar and phrase of the symphony on the record of “My Life” the needle of awareness has been there, as a witness.

The song can’t exist without the needle, just as our experiences can’t exist without awareness. Whatever tone, timbre, melody, or harmony is present in the song, the needle is there without adding anything else. Through all the events and circumstances of life there is awareness in those moments, and those moments couldn’t exist without the awareness. By the time the record has finished playing, the needle will have traveled the entire groove, a witness to every note, a silent participant in the expression of every chord.

So what is it like being a conscious being? Well, it is like whatever it is like, but there is always an awareness of what it is like. There is the ever present witness to this moment, this sound, this feeling. Awareness is there in a state of excitation, like the needle dancing in the groove, enabling us to experience of the rich and complex symphony of sensations we call life.

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One thought on “Turning the Tables on Perception

  1. Your essay is a marvelous flowing discourse that is itself an example of its topic. Needle, vinyl, tone arm, amplifier, grooves, waves, long ago impressed me and here I am again and still. Christmas in Killarney, a heavy, thick disc of – maybe it was Bakelite – and decades later two friends each having a collection if 33 1/3 LPs totaling together perhaps 10,000. Only now do I appreciate the gift, the grace.

    Like

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