Choice and Experience

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Perception.

Choice and life are intimately intertwined. Life presents us with choices, and the way we make those choices determines how we experience life. Some high-level choices seem big and in the foreground, like choosing a career, or a mate, or where to live, or what U.S. foreign policy should be. We give those choices a lot of thought and attention — sometimes.

Other lower level choices lie more in the background and further from consciousness — like the choice of which muscle fibers to contract, how strongly, and in what sequence as you walk across a room, pick up a glass of water, swing a golf club, or take part in a conversation. But how you make those choices, and how well you do so, plays a major role in whether your actions are fluid or stiff, graceful or clumsy, in whether you experience yourself as empowered and competent, or bumbling and incompetent.

Yet other choices seem lower-level still, so deeply backgrounded that we hardly register making them. Many choices you make in composing your experience of yourself and your environment are like this — how much available information you actually take in (awareness), for example, or what parts of that information you notice and incorporate in your decisionmaking (attention). These things may appear to “just happen” on their own, without explicit choice on your part, but that appearance is illusory. You do choose, though you may do so automatically and unconsciously. The unconscious choices you make at very low levels may ultimately have greater influence on the direction and quality of your life than do the more obvious higher-level choices of which you are more consciously aware.

This blog will explore some of the choices life offers, the mechanisms through which we make those choices, and the effects they have on how we experience life. I believe that better understanding of those mechanisms can lead to better choices and a better quality of life. I’ll focus particularly on the choices that determine our experience of our physical and emotional interactions with the world around us — the choices through which we construct and maintain the collective illusion we call reality, as I’ve described it in the past.

There are many ways to frame these issues. In The Reality Illusion I framed them in terms of constructing reality, and I’ve experimented with various other framings since. I currently find the idea of composing experience a good one, and that will be the central theme around which I organize my thinking here.

You compose experience on an ongoing moment-to-moment basis. You filter and select bits and pieces of information from the much richer stream of information in which you are constantly immersed. You combine those bits and pieces with information and structure from your past experience to create your current experience. The kind of life you have — happy or sad, secure or fear-filled, bland or exciting, meaningless or rewarding — may ultimately be determined more by the way you manage that creative process than by the external circumstances you encounter.

Better understanding of the mechanisms you use to compose your experience is an important first step to managing those mechanisms to improve the quality of the experience you compose. I hope this blog will help you reach that better understanding.

“Composing Experience” describes life

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Perception.

┬áLife presents us with an ongoing stream of experience — with experiences of situations and events, of interactions of all kinds with our environment and the other people in it. These experiences are multidimensional, involving visual images, sounds, physical contact, sometimes smell and taste. We attach emotional reactions to them. Some experiences feel good; we are drawn toward them and want more like that. Others feel bad and we try to avoid them. We tend to think of experience as something that just “happens to us” as we go through life — the automatic result of the events and situations in which we find ourselves. It doesn’t feel like something over which we have much direct control, except by taking action to change the situation being experienced.

It’s really much more complex than that. You have a great deal more control over your ongoing experience than you may realize or acknowledge, and many aspects of experience that seem determined by external events actually result from choices you make. These choices are automatic and unconscious, for the most part, which is why they don’t feel like your choices, But they are. The more you understand that, and the better you understand the mechanisms by which you make those choices, the more control you will have over your life.

You compose your experience on an ongoing moment-to-moment basis. You do this by filtering and selecting bits and pieces of information from the much richer stream of information in which you are constantly immersed. You combine those bits and pieces with information and structure from your past experience to create your current experience. The kind of life you have — happy or sad, secure or fear-filled, bland or exciting, meaningless or rewarding — may ultimately be determined more by the way you manage that creative process than by the external circumstances you encounter.

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The Perceptual Process Model

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Perception.

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.

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Composing different experiences

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Perception.

When I teach Composing Experience in workshops, I often begin with a direct experience illustrating how strongly your unconscious choices can affect your experience — even in situations that seem clear and straightforward. This is one of those experiences.

The situation is one in which you put one hand on your forehead and hold it there, while a partner grasps your wrist and slowly applies force to pull it away. Your resulting experience will depend on how you organize your perception of that situation, as the following video shows. Don’t just passively watch, but pause between the variations and play with them. If you watch with a friend, try each variation along with the video. If you watch alone, see how much of each experience you can recreate in your imagination as I describe them.

The exploration should not be approached as a contest between you and your partner, where he wins if he pulls your hand away and you win if he doesn’t. Rather, your partner should endeavor to provide the same stimulus each time — the same kind and amount of pull on your arm — so you can see how your perceptual choices affect the resulting experience for both of you.

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The Importance of Context

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Perception.

faces/vase illusionI’ve described composing experience as a process of selecting and assembling bits of information from an ongoing perceptual stream into the multidimensional images we use to experience the world around us. The familiar faces/vase figure provided one example of how using information from different parts of the perceptual stream can produce different experiences, while the various ways that different people compose their perceptions of their own bodies provided others. But composing experience involves more than simply the selecting a portion of the perceptual stream. It also involves interpreting the information selected giving it meaning within the context of the experience. The same information may be interpreted very differently depending on the surrounding context.

B/13 ambiguous figureA simple example of the importance of context is shown here. The central character can be read as the letter B or the number 13, depending on whether you read across or down. At first glance, this looks similar to the faces/vase — both figures are ambiguous and will support each of two interpretations. On closer examination, though, the mechanism here is quite different from the mechanism operating with the faces and vase. The switch between the B and the 13 doesn’t come from assembling the figure from different portions of the perceptual stream. Both the B and the 13 are constructed from the same raw data. The difference lies in the surrounding context. When you read horizontally, you interpret that data in the context of the A and C and see a B. When you read vertically, the same information (now in the context of the 12 and 14) becomes a 13. The perceptual principle here is that

your experience of a situation (the B/13, in this case) depends
on the context within which you interpret that situation
.

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