The Perceptual Process Model

Think of experience as having two primary components, perception and action. Perception includes those processes through which you know yourself and the world around you — vision, hearing, proprioception (body awareness, balance, position in space, movement), intellectual and intuitive understanding, etc. Action encompasses what you do to interact with that world — getting a drink when you’re thirsty, moving away from a threat or toward an opportunity, buying a car, making love, etc. Perception and action are not as distinct as giving them two different labels makes them seem, of course. Your actions are among the things you perceive, and perception itself involves choices that result in actions that contribute to perception, such as how you organize your awareness and where you focus attention. Perception and action are intimately intertwined aspects of the complex process which is human experiencing.

We’ll examine the information flows involved in composing experience using a framework I call the Perceptual Process Model. This framework builds on and extends ideas developed in The Reality Illusion. There I focused primarily on perception, whereas here we will also examine action as a component of experience, and somatic organization as the ground that underlies our actions. We’ll eventually consider the nature of emotional experience as well, where action and perception are combined in an unusual way.

We’ll start with a simple version of the model and gradually add complexity, building a series of increasingly complex approximations. We may sometimes drop off pieces, as we shift perspective to emphasize different parts of the process. This model is not meant to be a complete description of the type that might be appropriate in science or academia. Rather, it’s purpose is to enhance and enrich your personal understanding of how you compose your experience, so that you might do so in ways that serve you better. In this sense, the perceptual process model is meant to be a perspective on the process of composing experience, in the sense that I defined that term in my recent article on “Epistemology and the Feldenkrais Method” and in my 1975 article on “Squishy Problems and Quantitative Methods.”

Perception is the complex ongoing process through which you continually transform information you receive from the world around you into useful representations of the source of that information. You transform light falling our your retinas into visual images of things you are looking at, changes in the air pressure impinging on your eardrums into meaningful sounds, and various forms of physical pressure against your body into a sense of a solid world “out there” with which you mechanically interact. You transform information received from within your body, about the lengths of and the tensions within your muscles, the position and movement of your joints, etc., into your somatic sense of self — your sense of your physical body, where it is in space, what it is doing, and other aspects of your way of being in and interacting with the world.

eye as a cameraWe don’t usually think much about the information processing these transformations require. We treat our perceptions as valid representations of whatever they depict, seldom questioning how accurate they really might be. This unquestioned acceptance embodies what might be called the eye as a camera model of visual perception, representing vision as a simple process in which the lens of the eye focuses images on the retina in the same way that a camera focuses images on film — the way it was described to us as children.

This eye-as-a-camera model has a great deal of appeal. It’s simple, and equating our perceptions with the events and situations they depict works for us most of the time. That’s not really what happens, though, and a deeper understanding of the process is necessary if you hope to exercise more control over how you experience your life.

You don’t objectively see what’s before you, as a camera might. Rather, you compose what you see, drawing both on the visual information your eyes take in and on your past experience and expectations derived from that experience. You see what you know how to see, not simply the raw patterns of light, dark, and color which fall on your retinas. You can see familiar things more easily than unfamiliar things, and you can see things that “belong” in the context in which they occur more easily than you can see things that do not. The same thing happens with other dimensions of perception as well; your entire current experience is shaped by the myriad unconscious choices you make as you compose it.

The Perceptual Process Model

Schematically, we can summarize this way of looking at perception in what I’ll call the Perceptual Process Model, shown here in a very simple form. This is essentially the model that I proposed in The Reality Illusion, though I used somewhat different terminology there.

Perceptual Process Model -- 1st approximation

Think of yourself as being continually immersed in an immense stream of information, which I’ll call your perceptual stream. The globe represents the world around you, the source of that perceptual stream. In addition to the outside world it includes your body, itself a major source of the information. Your perceptual stream is processed through your perceptual lens, which we will treat conceptually as a “black box.” (“Black box” is an engineering term used for a process described in terms of what the process accomplishes, without specifically addressing the internal detail of how that is actually done.) Within that lens, pieces of this overall perceptual stream are filtered out and assembled into a stream of perceptual images.

I’m using the term “image” here in a very general sense, to refer to more than just visual images. It encompasses all the perceptual representations you make for yourself. The words you hear when someone speaks to you and the melody you hear when you listen to music are auditory images; your sense of your body in space and of the movement of your arm when you pick up an object are kinesthetic images, etc. These images are not objective copies of the world “out there,” as depicted in the eye-as-a-camera model. Rather, they are representations of things you know how to perceive and expect to encounter.

This model describes the way you produce the various individual dimension of perception — vision, hearing, touch, the kinesthetic sense of body position and movement, emotional feeling, intellectual understanding, etc., as well as how you produce your overall ongoing experience — the encompassing multidimensional stream of experience of which all the individual dimensions are components. I’ll sometimes use the term current experience to refer to the ever changing present moment in that ongoing stream.

Looking at visual perception in isolation, the perceptual stream would be the flow of visual information coming into your eyes from the outside world, and the perceptual images would be the visual images you see as a result of that flow. More generally, your larger perceptual stream would include ambient sounds impinging on your eardrums, smells, the haptic (touch and pressure) sensations from your contact with the objects in the external world, etc. It would also include proprioceptive sensations from within your body, which we’ll examine in greater depth in later postings. Your perceptual images would include your interpretations of what you hear, the sense of mass and volume of external objects derived from all your senses, and even your perceptions of opportunity or threat from external situations and your emotional responses to them.

This points up an important truth that it’s easy to lose track of. Human beings are extremely complex organisms, living and functioning in extremely rich and complex environments. When we think and talk about who we are and how we function, we usually ignore most of that complexity and focus on much simpler abstractions as if that was all there is. That kind of simplification works pretty well, most of the time, but we need to keep in mind that there is always a lot more going on. Sometimes that difference can be important, and neglecting it can have serious consequences. I’ll return to this point from time to time as we proceed.

Different parts of the flow produce different perceptual images

Your perceptual image of an external situation of event is not uniquely determined by that situation or event. You compose that image by selecting and assembling pieces from your larger perceptual flow, so the parts of the flow you select will determine the resulting perception. Different parts of the perceptual flow will produce different perceptions.

faces/vase illusionConsider the familiar faces/vase figure, which comes up frequently in discussions of visual perception and visual illusion. What you see depends on where you look. The black figure in the middle looks like a vase, while the white areas on each side can be seen as two faces looking at each other. Objectively, it’s neither; it’s simply a pattern of black against a white background. This ambiguity is often described as stemming from figure/ground reversal. Which you see depends on which part of the drawing you make the foreground (figure) and which part you relegate to the background (ground).

In terms of our Perceptual Process Model, we could say that the two different perceptions are composed using different portions of the incoming perceptual stream. You see the faces when you use the white portion of that stream, and the vase happens when you use the black. This illustrates a general perceptual principle that

You compose different experiences by focusing on
different parts of the information available to you.

This isn’t something that just happens with ambiguous visual figures like the faces/vase drawing. It occurs throughout all aspects of experience. In my work as a Feldenkrais Teacher, I’ve been fascinated by range of different ways in which people I’ve worked with compose their perceptions of their own bodies. Some people compose their sense of themselves from the sensations produced by their movements. When asked what their legs feel like, for example, they will begin to roll their legs slightly from side to side. They have no sense, apparently, of their legs (or other body parts) existing in stillness. They create sensations of movement by moving their legs, then create their sense of their legs from that. Others create their sense of themselves through tension — by tightening the area they want to notice, then using the tension to compose their perception of that part. Yet others simply feel their bodies directly. These different ways of composing a sense of self have important implications for the composer’s overall experience of life, which we consider in more depth in later postings.

In my next posting, I’ll examine the role of memory and expectation.

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