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Friday, March 8, 2013

We Are What We Perceive

(This essay was written 20 years ago and forms the basis of everything I’ve thought and done since.  For this reason I put it out there from time to time.)

What we perceive can be viewed as the raw material for our information processing machinery.  It is the stuff from which we build an image of the world around us and which supplies us with the moment by moment adjustments needed to stay in touch with what is "real".  In the modern world we need to gain control over sensory input; what is out there is so varied and cacophonous that it no longer supplies reliable adaptive order.  Since perception can be considered the ingestion of the mind, the evolution of a creature's relationship with nutrients and their relationship with perceptual habits may well have common elements.

In fact, food is an almost perfect analogy.  In the development of humans and for every animal it was necessary to consume what was available, thus the "balanced diet" came to be the nutrients that were possible.  If "essential" amino acids and vitamins were not easy to come by in a normal diet they would not be essential, i.e., organisms lost the ability to make the “essential” nutrients because they were so abundant in the diet.  Organisms ate what was available for the work they were willing to do to get food.  All one need do is live off the land for a few days to realize that plants are the stuff of life.  Birds hide their eggs (when there are eggs), animals run away and hide; the meat part of meat and potatoes is very energy and time consuming to come by.  Not every plant can be eaten, but quite a number can. They are there; they don't run away.  They have to be collected and processed; that's all.  They contain, when eaten in sufficient amounts, all the nutrients for a healthy life.

And today?  All manner of foodstuff is available, thousands of apparent choices rather than one or ten.  And what is more (and very odd) these choices are competing to be chosen, so they must be made desirable to the taste.  Food did not compete evolutionarily to be picked or dug up to be eaten.  Plants may have competed to be planted, moved around or pollinated and may have used supplying some sustenance as a way to attract interest, but to be chosen to be eaten was not the point.

But today's food must be desirable, that means it must contain what served us well to have the greatest drive for, what in the wild is rare and difficult to come by; lots of calories, especially in the form of fat.  The only way to overcome this twist of the human taste is to be very selective and to make an active effort to eat, take into the body, a "balanced diet", the way we would naturally just by getting enough to eat if we ate off the land as hominids did for 99.5% of their existence.

The most severe deviations from a "balanced diet" result in death.  Less severe deviations lead to ill health of various kinds--deficiency diseases.  And still less severe deviations result in that plethora of complaints of modern life, obesity, heart trouble, cancers and various behavioral distortions.  Not that we would not have complaints if we all ate better, but they would not be the same ones.

What does this have to do with perceptional input? Everything! Everything that has been said about nutrients is true of perception.  We evolved to input all the information that we could get from the environment.  Input that was consistent in a geological/ecological time-frame, we came to depend on as essential inputs for establishing mental order--day/night, cycles of the moon, seasons, gravity, the least harmful parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.  These were built right into our bodies. 

Just as with food what we call essential is what was a given.  Other parts of the world that changed only very slowly we used to guide us.  We knew our world with mental maps that could be relied on.  We took mental order from the order of nature.  What we needed to know was there to be learned and once learned could be used and refined and used some more.  We listened for every sound, we watched for every visual change, we felt the air, we sought for every smell, we used every nuance of taste and we paid sustaining attention to that thing that has been called the sixth sense--the bringing together of all the evidence of senses and experience for some total impression which is truly more than the sum of its parts--a basis for action that could not reliably come from one sense alone, a kind of personal representative democracy bringing together all the evidence for a real time state of awareness.

As with specific nutritional insufficiency, a person might feel the need for some special form of information in the same way that he or she might be "hungry" for a particular root or berry.  This felt need could arise from the intuition recognizing the insufficiency of the available data to create a balanced sense of conclusion or closure needed to create the conditions for action.   To satisfy such a need the person would seek through perceptual input with greater attention or become very quiet and meditative or go beyond the usual to let the mixing and remixing of perception and experience take as many forms as possible (called in Native American tradition a vision quest).
The key always was attention, a quiet practiced attention that placed everything without judgment on the table.  Just as with food, what mattered was what was there.  If a creature tried to eat what was not there, it starved.  If a creature tried to act on what was not there to perceive, it often died from its inappropriate behavior.  For most animals it was an article of biological faith that sufficient amounts of substances that they could not manufacture (e.g., essential amino acid) would always be available in a diet that had enough calories to stay alive, so it was not necessary to retain the physical equipment to make that substance.  For humans it became a matter of biological faith that close attention to the world would supply information and the order needed to use that information so it was not necessary to retain the stricter forms of genetic control of behavior.
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Just as sailors die on a diet of salt pork and crackers, so we die as human beings on a perceptual diet of consumption, violence and sexual titillation.  For me this observation leads to two questions.  First, what is meant by 'die as human beings' if a person is not dead in body?  And second, what is a balanced perceptual diet?

Not to be alive as a member of a species and yet to be biologically alive is an important distinction which when not understood can lead to sad treatment of ourselves and other species.  It is a little like the question of life and death of a brain-dead person: a person whose body can be offered an environment in which it will continue to perform biological activities very like those of the person before they became brain-dead.   The wish for the person to be fully alive and interactive is not enough to make it be and the resemblance of the person to their prebrain-dead self is an illusion.  Something is alive, but it is not the person who was.  It is not Jim or Maggy or Jose or Liz if those names are to be attached to smiles and ideas and habits and mischiefs.  The living thing is a bunch of cells that still has the shape of Jim or Maggy or Jose or Liz.  And those cells can still metabolize so long as someone feeds them and cleans them and delivers them oxygen; they are like the cells in a tissue culture, like the cells growing on agar.
Think for a moment about how you would define a hawk or a salmon or a bobcat.  They can be described by their appearance and they can be described by their behaviors.  A hawk has a hawk's body in a cage or when riding a thermal that it has sensed out of the unseeable air.  But the hawk is much more than its body, it is the whole collection of behaviors and skills that 100 million years of raptoring has led to.  A salmon in a farm pond is a pound of fish, but it is not the powerful instincts and equally powerful sensing tools of the fish returning to a spawning stream.  A bobcat's body in a zoo smells disorder, hears cacophony and goes insane, leaping in mad repetitive circles; behaviors unlike any bobcat's body would perform in the forest of its ancestry.  I would say, in the cage, in the farm pond or in the zoo, that these animals' behavioral part is ill or dead.  The behaviors that their bodies are built to support cannot happen and so only a piece of the animal is there.

What is true for the hawk, the salmon and the bobcat is true for humans, we are cut from the same living cloth.  This is not hocus-pocus.  A body is there for the purpose of getting the behaviors done.  Without the behaviors there is only the body like the body of the poor brain-dead person kept alive by a special environment of food tubes and respirators.
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The second question; what is a balanced perceptual diet, can be seen now to have additional parts.  What are the defining ancestral ways of humans?   What is the nature of perception in human ancestral behavior?  What is a balanced perceptual diet and how can it help to restore our defining ancestral behaviors so that we might be more fully alive as human beings.   And, is it possible in the "modern" world to be a human being in the sense used here; alive in body, ancestral ways and in the spirit of our origins?

We are, each and everyone, human and contain within us the sustaining biological and genetically conferred behavioral wisdom of our species.  What humans seem to do more than any other species is to incorporate consistent perceptual input into ordering systems through which their biological natures manifest.  In other words, the expression, "What you see is what you get," turns out to be the highest wisdom.

When our distant prehuman ancestors evolved away from instinctual hard wired control of behavior toward a way of doing business that let the world around them supply much of the information that gave flesh to bare bone propensities and drives, they took a fateful step.  To anthropomorphize outrageously, they said, "Environment, we know you are greatly varied, and we know you change slowly over time.  We are giving ourselves over to you in the trust that you will remain consistent over at least a few of our generations.  We will change as you change, directly without having to go through the intermediary of the evolution of behavior".  

It was a deal well struck, and worked wonderfully for prehumans and humans for millions of years.  Our ancestors slowly, in what is normal time for evolution, became less instinctual and more integrated into the information (energy) flows of the environment.  Each individual became a deep reservoir of experience, for the most part personal and private, useful to the group only when that individual was present and attentive.  But enter language and all-human breaks loose!

We were able to evolve a way to be deeply integrated into the information from the environment precisely because the environment was constant over long spans of time.  If the world rapidly changed its rules of engagement, no intelligent animal could have happened.  It is no accident that organic life times are infinitesimal in geologic and ecologic time.

The answer to a couple of the questions begin to form.  Perception for humans is not the collection of discrete informational bits to be acted on by a genetically programmed brain.  Perception is the information gathering part of the way that we organize our structure of mind and it implies that if our perceptions change, our structure of mind will change.  As everyone knows, early childhood experience is the most important time for setting patterns, and this must be recognized, but even such early deeply ingrained organizing habits can be very much influenced by consistent perceptual experiences in our present.  Put another way: We are what we are able to organize out of our perceptions.  If our world is consistent and meaningful, our organization will be consistent and meaningful (‘meaningful’ means that our understandings and actions fit the events taking place around us).  If our world is inconsistent, disorienting and chaotic, our organization will tend to be inconsistent--or we will attempt to create order from inherent disorder by selecting, for no particularly valid reason, an organizing principle (this means that our understandings and actions will fit at some acceptable level, for some amount of time, a limited set of the events taking place around us, if we are lucky).  This is why people kill for what they call ideas!

Even the best laid plans of mice and prehuman anthropoids….  We, actually our prehuman ancestors, let go of the rope of instinct for the freefall of real-time perceptual intimacy with the environment.  And it worked great and then too well.  The environment "kept its part of the bargain".  The environment has not increased its rate of change beyond the expected geological/ecological time scales, but we humans became so good at fitting the available environment that we became the agents of change.  And we have escalated that rate of change for 50,000 years until today significant changes in essential aspects of the environment can happen in months, and the power exists in our technology to make huge changes in seconds.

When we, our prehuman ancestors, let go of the rope of instinct for the freefall of real-time perceptual intimacy with the environment it was not a free fall in the beginning.  If fact, nothing happened except that we did better and better at everything.  The more the world informed us the more accurately we acted in it.  The less instinct dominated action the more action became a function of finer and finer nuance of environmental information.  Experience became the canvas for the perceptions of the present and experience was formed from the consistent perceptions of the past.

Certainly there were dramatic changes in the moment.  A river would flood, an elder would die, but the abiding order remained.  Disease would wipe the slate all but clean and we would start again and the abiding order remained; a nourishing perceptual consistency.  Vitamin C was always in the fruit, day followed night, the moon waned and waxed with attendant consequences, plants grew in season, animals appeared and disappeared in regular ways, a warm wind from ‘that way, in this season,’ had its meaning.

And as we were hungry for food, we became hungry for input.  Listening, seeing, smelling out every sensation for its uses and it was all good.  Patterns of regularity were the fat of the fresh kill or the succulence of a new berry harvest.  Predator animals tried to trick us with sneakiness designed by their instinct to fool instinct; they would starve if we were their only food.  Food animals tried to outwit us with their instinctual powers of deception only to become greasy leavings licked eagerly from our fingers.  If the other creatures could have only known what they were up against, but of course they could not.  We were only just beginning to have the barest inkling; we had our powers long before we recognized them as special. And by the time some of us began to recognize our powers, we had long since lost control of their implications (if it even makes any sense to talk of control!).  The way had been set for humans to succeed, then succeed wildly, and then to dominate the thin film of life space that covers the earth so completely that even we would be dominated completely by what we had become.

Perceptual diet

But today sensation comes in cacophonous abundance.  The natural environmental sources of sensation are so totally overwhelmed by those produced by human beings as to be an insignificant percentage, and even that which is noticed is very often judged to be more inconvenience than informative.

For the most part we take in the sensation that is delivered based on volume, contrast and repetition; in other words, we are not really selecting, at least not critically selecting.  But we have needs for patterns and qualities of sensation in the same way that we have needs for specific qualities and quantities of nutrients.  Ultimately these needs are non-negotiable just as nutritional needs are non-negotiable.

Human and hominid life for most of the existence of our genus has had a major meditative component, exercise, regular contact with biophysical reality, problem solving and exploring, 3 to 5 servings a day of language free activities and so on.  But, this is only a suggested beginning. 

Take charge of your perceptual diet the way that you might take charge of your nutrition; actively select what you allow to come into your sensations.  Avoid poisonous sensations that weaken and sicken you. Discover your essential sensations, those that make you well when you add them to your perceptual diet.  But, more than anything else, actively select what you allow into your brain.  We no longer live in a world where we can “take it all in” and process it.