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The Neurological Underpinnings of Perceptual Intelligence
You're walking alone through a forest late on a windy night. You've been through these woods many times before and know the way, but you've never done so by yourself, and certainly never after dark. You arrive at a clearing and see something unusual in the distance. It blocks your path, so you proceed cautiously while squinting in the darkness to determine what lurks there. Suddenly, you freeze as you see the form take the shape of a large animal; its skin glistens in the moonlight. You can feel its glowing eyes bearing down on you, sizing you up and preparing to attack. Its razor-sharp fangs jut out. It approaches you, and your heart races while you debate whether your action will be fight or flight. As you are about to make a run for it, the creature lunges right at you and your reflexes kick in to protect your face. You scream at the top of your lungs until you realize that you have been scared out of your wits by a plastic garbage bag full of leaves and twigs that had been caught in a gust of wind. Brushing off the refuse, you laugh at yourself for having thought this stupid garbage bag was a monstrous animal. You continue on your way.
In this scenario, at what stage did your perception of the animal originate? Were you expecting to see something dangerous because you were alone in this dark forest for the first time? When the object first appeared in your line of vision, did you tense up and become fearful?
Misperceiving the bag reflects poor PI in that situation. From the beginning, the menacing object was merely a plastic bag full of leaves and twigs. It was harmless all along, but in the absence of light you couldn't discern what it was; then your imagination kicked in, filling in the missing details. Innumerable memories might have kicked in, presenting subliminal messaging: perhaps you had seen a horror film in which someone was attacked by a hideous animal in the woods; you may have read something in the news about a predator on the loose in that forest; when you were a child, perhaps your mother warned you about never going into the forest because she had a relative who had been harmed there by a wild animal; or, as is quite common, the forest evoked sinister images from fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood" or literary classics like Sleepy Hollow.
Every individual perceives things differently. The same circumstances may produce wildly different interpretations, depending on one's PI. Another person might have been in the same situation as you but determined right away that the bag was a harmless object taking the shape of an animal. On the other hand, a third person venturing forth might have panicked and closed his or her eyes the entire time out of fright. The plastic bag and its contents would have hit his or her unprotected face dead-on, causing scratches and bruises. This terrified individual would scurry off and post a story on the Internet about having been attacked by a supernatural monster.
In this chapter we will explore the world of human perception: what it means, how and where it originates, and how the brain functions and tries to make sense of it all.
Are We All Trapped in a Matrix?
In 1999 Andy and Larry Wachowski created an enormously successful science fiction film called The Matrix, which starred Keanu Reeves as Neo, a man who discovers that the world we live in isn't real. The human race is actually part of a vast computer simulation in which people's energy is being used to power machines ruling the "real world." While in the Matrix, everything humans experience is convincingly real; they see, feel, touch, taste, and smell everything. Their memories and emotions all originate from what occurs in the Matrix, and this has been their perception of reality for years ... until Neo joins a rebellion and battles to free the minds and bodies of humanity to join the real world, no matter how dark and precarious it might be.
The film's executive producer Andrew Mason distilled the movie down to this: "[It] is the question of whether or not what I am experiencing right now is real." The Matrix, of course, is just science fiction. (I hope — how would we prove otherwise?) But the notion that we might not have control over our perceptions or that we aren't living in the "true reality" is a fascinating one. As with the scenario of the bag of leaves, can we be so easily fooled?
Our brains are obviously our primary "matrix" and vital to our perception of the world around us at all times. The rest of our body sends inputs to the brain — from pain to pleasure and everything in between — which in turn responds with interpretations of them; not only does it tell us if and how we should react, but it stores the information for later recovery and analysis.
The brain is an organ, though it is often called a muscle because it "performs work" and rules all other muscles from its perch in the skull. The brain can be dissected, measured, and studied. But there's also something we refer to as the "mind," which gives rise to our consciousness. Unlike the brain, the mind is transcendent and nonquantifiable. Neuroscientist Sam Harris describes it as "what it's like to be you." Unlike a kidney, heart, or lung, you can't transplant consciousness from one person into another.
The vexing question is: What role does the mind play in perception and PI as opposed to that played by the brain? Is the mind the seat of perception within the brain itself? Perhaps it is microscopic or even invisible and located within some lobe or synapse? Or does it reside somewhere else?
These questions are further complicated when we add the body to the equation. Sometimes it seems the body is just the brain's personal chauffeur. But recent studies in neuroscience argue convincingly that the brain and nervous system are so intertwined via a complex web of mutual receptors and connections that it's absurd to speak of them as separate entities, as in the Cartesian view of the body. Thus, any explanation of Perceptual Intelligence hinges on the neurobiological argument that while mind and body are interdependent, the mind is not the brain. By demonstrating the truth of this assertion, we can perhaps identify the source of PI — without any paranoia of being trapped in a matrix that is directing the entire cosmic show.
Opening the Doors of Perception
In the introduction I defined Perceptual Intelligence as how we interpret and occasionally manipulate our experiences to distinguish fantasy from reality.
But what, exactly, does the word perception mean in this context?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines perception as "the way you think about or understand someone or something ... the ability to understand or notice something easily... the way you notice or understand something using one of your senses." This covers it on a basic level, but it doesn't begin to explain the role perception plays when interpretation is based on myriad factors outside our senses — namely, intuition (or gut feeling), personal experiences, timing, and so forth.
Interpreting what we experience, therefore, requires something much greater than perception alone. When we perceive something — such as the scary object in the Sleepy Hollow forest — it doesn't mean that we are in any way achieving accuracy. Perception involves immediate, raw, and unfiltered data that enters our minds before being processed through thought and action. Once we interpret the object as having glistening skin, glowing eyes, and razor-sharp fangs, our minds have taken an extraordinary leap; our perception has turned our conclusion into our new reality. We would get an F for our Perceptual Intelligence in this scenario.
In his book An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense, eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid examined the concept of immediacy, arguing that the perception process had to include some idea or notion of the perceived object: "If, therefore, we attend to that act of our mind which we call the perception of an external object of sense, we shall find it in these three things: First, some conception or notion of the object perceived; Secondly, a strong and irresistible conviction and belief of its present existence; and, Thirdly, that this conviction and belief are immediate, and not the effect of reasoning."
Even as babies, we sense and recognize objects in their immediate form, allowing us to create an immediate, unmediated experience. In this way we convince ourselves of the reality of a perceived object. Once this perception links with sensation — a direct function of the brain — the experience of the senses creates a link with the brain's mental models.
Think about smelling a rose. While the fragrance is merely a perception, it becomes a sensation when we realize that the rose smells good — unless you happen to be allergic to roses. Smell can be a vehicle for our sensing pleasure or for our annoyance. Sensation relies on the mere act of smelling, whereas perception relies on interpretation of that aroma. If you believe you will see a rose next week, you already anticipate a certain pleasing smell; if you happen to be allergic to roses, you would head down a different path to avert a visit to the allergist. These two variant responses are the basic principles of PI in motion.
IF A TREE FALLS, OR HOW TO GIVE YOURSELF A PHILOSOPHICAL HEADACHE
It's been a philosophical and scientific puzzle for centuries, dating back to 1710 and Irish philosopher George Berkeley: If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? The answer is unequivocally yes — but that's because I've tricked you. Sorry about that, but I need to make a point: "no one" implies human beings; certainly animals are capable of hearing, so the sound of the tree falling is certainly detectable by those nonhuman creatures within earshot. But does a sound need to be physically perceived by a living being in order to be real?
Philosophers continue to debate this — especially those fixated on the concept that our senses exist only in our minds — but many physicists look toward quantum mechanics theory for the answer. Sound is produced when one source causes the molecules of another (such as air or water) to vibrate, producing a molecular wave. So the technical answer, from a scientific perspective, is yes; any tree that falls will always produce a sound, whether or not we (or nearby animals) are there to register it, because the molecular wave has been produced.
Let's take the scientific perspective a step further. We have a general idea of what a tree falling sounds like: thud. If no human was there to hear the thud, we still know it occurred because our memory of the sound — which we perceived as a reality at the time from our sense of hearing and perhaps from simultaneously feeling the vibration — has kicked in. Our mind has interpreted the molecular wave as a thud because we have come to know the sound a tree makes when it strikes the ground from a variety of potential sources, such as having heard it in the woods or having heard a recording of it (in films, on television, or on the radio). We have never formulated a scenario whereby the tree does not make the thud sound.
Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch: each sense is important enough to warrant being overseen by its own dedicated sensory organ (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin). Our world is teeming with stimuli, and our senses react to them in both voluntary and involuntary ways. We might happen to inhale the scent of a rose along a path or we might spot the flower, deliberately step toward it, press out nostrils against it, and breathe in the fragrance to our hearts' content.
No doubt you are wondering how this process actually works. It requires a complex interplay of one or more senses operating either simultaneously or separately to make something perceivable. Our sensory organs contain receptor cells that detect physical sensations. There are general receptors, which are found throughout the body; special receptors that include chemical receptors (chemoreceptors) in the nose and mouth; photoreceptors in the eyes; and mechanoreceptors in the ears. These receptor cells register the stimulus, converting its energy into an electrochemical signal that relays information about the stimulus through the nervous system to the brain.
From there, these electrical signs are conducted to a nearby area of primary processing, where the initial characteristics of the information are elaborated, according to the original stimulus's nature — that is, its smell, taste, feel, and so on. Then the already modified information is transmitted to the thalamus, a structure lying deep in the brain that is involved in sensory and motor signal relay and the regulation of consciousness and sleep.
The thalamus plays the indispensable role of primary gatekeeper for our senses, determining which signals head to the cerebral cortex. In order for us to see, for example, the retina must send an input via the optic nerves to the thalamus; this is where older data connects to the new information to form a message, which is then transported to the visual cortex of the brain.
Let us not forget the cerebral neocortex, a critical part of the cerebral cortex that helps control functions such as sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and, in humans, language. Some studies indicate that it's the neocortex that is responsible for the differences in how we experience the world around us.
It all sounds pretty simple, right? But there is so much more to our brains than meets the eye.
DOES THE BRAIN MAKE PERCEPTION, OR DOES PERCEPTION MAKE THE BRAIN?
Here's something to consider: Almost everything we perceive might be nothing more than an internal mental simulation of the external world, informed occasionally by sampling data culled from our senses. Now, before you raise your eyebrows in disbelief, realize this isn't some in vogue new age theory but a widely held scientific concept.
In other words, we are right smack in the center of the Matrix (though we are not provided a false reality by machines). Reality is real, but what we see, hear, feel, touch, and smell is all in our heads, courtesy of our brain's "built-in virtual reality machine," as described by Bahar Gholipour, managing director of BrainDecoder.com. There are, of course, many neuroscientists who might disagree with this notion.
Whichever the case may be, brain scientists seem to agree that both sensory information and our mental models play a critical role in how we make sense of the world. From the first moments of life, our brains learn from experience and construct images as a way of predicting future interactions with the environment.
This is a primitive survival game. Our brains simply can't process billions of sensory inputs in minute detail, so we tap into our previous experiences to fill in the blanks, speed up the process, or jump to emotionally driven conclusions. You assume that the red flashing lights in your rearview mirror are those of a police car because you just rolled through a stop sign. Your heart begins to race, since you got a ticket two months ago and your insurance rates will go up with this ticket. It would take too long to break down all the sensory inputs of that scenario, but suffice it to say your mind misled you and reduced your PI. The red flashing lights belonged to an ambulance. Your PI is most certainly not bullet-proof.
Since we are consciously and subconsciously making judgments on so much data — many times without our senses having performed a fresh or complete survey — it's reasonable to believe that as much as 90 percent of human perception is converted to mental fabrication, though by luck we still occasionally happen upon an accurate conclusion (or come close enough). Our ability to recognize how and where our brains have tampered with our perceptions is where we can harness our PI and control our sense of reality.
Brain and Brain — What Is Brain?
You might think we know a lot about the human brain. After all, brain research is surging. In the past two years, both the United States and the European Union launched new programs to better understand it. Technology for recording brain activity has been improving at a revolutionary pace. Scientists are finally starting to grasp the overwhelming complexity of illnesses that afflict the brain and how to treat these illnesses. At Ohio State University, scientists have used skin cells to grow a "mini brain," or organoid, that is the genetic equivalent of a human fetal brain and could be used to fight cancer and autism, as well as Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's, and a number of other debilitating neurological ailments. All this comes on the heels of an ambitious Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative — an acronym that no doubt made some scientist feel clever — designed to speed "our understanding of the brain at the level of its neural circuitry" and "develop a fundamental understanding of the brain."
Excerpted from "Perceptual Intelligence"
Copyright © 2017 Advanced Vision Education, LLC.
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