When David Attenborough went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef for the first time, he was ecstatic about it:
From all my travels, the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on the coral reef is the moment I remember most vividly. Suddenly, this amazing world with a thousand things you didn’t know existed is revealed right in front of you, all wonderful colours and shapes… great shoals of fish, the reef is as rich as it comes, as varied and as beautiful as it gets… just astounding and unforgettable beauty.
Let’s imagine that we are one of these fish, maybe an Emperor Angelfish.
You wake up in the morning, and you’re hungry. So do the other fish who are in competition with you. There’s no time to contemplate the wonderful colours, you have to eat and grow big. So you spend the morning foraging among the coral, with all of your attention on the task at hand.
At midday, the current on the reef picks up. Like a boat in a harsh storm, you find yourself struggling to stay on course. You get washed into the territory of a rival, who sees you and attacks you. It’s your bad luck that he’s been more successful than you in finding food each morning, and he’s quite a bit bigger than you are.
He wins the fight, and you are exiled to the furthest reaches of the coral shelf, where storms and predators hit the worst. Now you have to fight your way back to your territory, from the worst starting position on the reef.
You have concerns like this every day of your approximately 20 years of life, and they almost always take precedence over pondering how beautiful and full of life your coral reef is.
All of us, of course, are just like the fish. The Earth itself is the most astounding sanctuary that we know about in the universe, containing an intractable web of incredible complexity.
We may not have concerns as extreme as the fish, but that doesn’t stop them from occupying most of our mental space.
When we have things to worry about, like when the shopping is going to get done, how to fix your broken code, or how to handle a shitty co-worker, then other things get filtered out.
Let’s do a quick test. In the video below, count the number of times the players in white pass the basketball.
You’ll always miss something obvious when you’re focusing on something else.
But there’s a very good reason why this happens. The amount of data that our senses send to our brain is enormous and overwhelming. About 11 million bits of information are sent to the brain per second, yet the conscious mind is only able to process about 50 bits.
This volume of information could be compared to the water flowing through the mouth of the Mississippi River, which expels 16 million litres of water per second.
In this analogy, our conscious mind would have the capacity of a 70-litre plastic bucket. It scoops out basically nothing of what our senses tell us is going on around us.
Filtration is one of two methods that our brain uses to deal with this discrepancy. The filters are not physical, they are mental constructions of bias and assumptions that ignore the information that we don’t focus on. They’re why you probably didn’t notice the gorilla in the video.
The other is compression. It occurs when information is processed outside of the conscious notice of our brain, and influences our decisions through unconscious feeling and emotion. It’s hard to quantify, but many neurologists believe that the vast majority of the brain’s work is conducted unconsciously.
Which part of this torrent of information we choose to focus on, called our ‘selective attention‘, is what constructs our conscious reality.
Selective attention allows us to function in day-to-day life, but it cuts us off from seeing the universe as it really is. As a consequence, the world around is vaster, richer, and deeper than we notice, or perhaps can even imagine.
Even the most basic, everyday things around us have a deep history and complexity that we don’t perceive or don’t have knowledge of.
Where we point our selective attention is heavily influenced by the norms of our culture.
Children often make unique and curious observations, but over time, things that are apparently unchanging, uninteresting, or not directly relevant become increasingly ignored, and their selective attention becomes more oriented towards day-to-day living.
But we usually experience a mild mental shift in certain circumstances, like visiting a new city, hiking to an incredible new place, or scuba diving for the first time.
In circumstances like these, we change where our selective attention points. The environment isn’t necessarily more detailed or interesting than our everyday one, but we haven’t had the chance to build up our filters of bias and assumptions yet. More of our attention is turned towards experiencing the moment, and so we take more information in.
Travellers to new countries will comment on differences in food that locals don’t seem to realise. Their palate is different as their sense of taste hasn’t normalised to the new environment.
When Antarctic explorers returned from months-long expeditions in endlessly white landscapes, they would invariably comment on how drenched in colour our modern world is.
Or if you took a person from the 17th century, who was accustomed to a world of muskets, horses, and carts, and showed them our world of satellites, smartphones, and scuba diving, it’s fair to imagine that not only would they be astonished – they might actually die with shock.
The same New York location, pre-16th Century and now. Source: Philip Straub.
Because these people haven’t had a chance to get used to our everyday environment, they may have a better emotional handle on the astonishing nature of our world than we do; like how David Attenborough could appreciate what the fish couldn’t.
We ignore thoughts of the cosmos to focus on the lion crouching behind the bush. We turn from the stirrings of transcendence to the email on the screen. We nudge aside insights about the universe in favor of dinner. Most of us live on that level of reality, satisfied we are missing nothing.
- Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints Of God
We can be partially trained to broaden our selective attention. A surf lifesaver will see patterns in water that are invisible to almost everyone else. A physicist may be fascinated by turbulence patterns in clouds, and a gardener may be blown away with a quick walk through a national park, or even by a mini-ecosystem of moss growing in a stump.
Ancient Polynesians were some of the greatest navigators in history, able to travel great distances between islands without a compass, map, or sextant. They did this by learning to notice the subtle cues in their environment when land was far out of sight, like the stars, but also the species of birds, air and sea interference patterns caused by distant islands, and the type and movement of clouds, each of which revealed their position among the islands.
It’s not that these people have better eyes or ears than the rest of us, but they have learned to be sensitive to subtle patterns in their environment that usually escape our notice.
A relatively new discovery of neuroscience is that multiple areas of the brain work together to create what is called the default mode network. It may be the part of our brain that’s responsible for many internally directed thoughts, like when we think about others, about ourselves, remember the past, and plan for the future.
The default mode network tends to become inactive when we focus on our external environment or on specific tasks. When this happens, areas associated with our visual perception and attention become more active.
Researchers have found that meditation reduces activity in the default mode network. Many practices focus specifically on sensory awareness to expand our filters, and notice a plethora of sensations and sounds that we usually ignore. A common effect of this kind of meditation is a feeling of greater awareness of their environment and nature.
There is also a growing body of research on the effects of psychedelics on perception and mental states. Like meditation, these substances also reduce activity in the default mode network.
In one controlled study involving hundreds of volunteers taking controlled doses of psilocybin, most participants described seeing their surroundings with greater intensity than usual, and with a feeling of oneness, unity, and intuitive insight as well as feelings of amazement, awe, humility, and reverence.
What’s more, 61% of participants reported experiencing what they called ‘ultimate reality’, an experience that they believed to be ‘more real’ than their normal awareness of everyday reality.
The majority of the volunteers rated their experience to be among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.
But it’s not just our immediate environment that is richer and fuller than it appears at first glance.
The further and deeper that science looks into the universe, the more complexity it finds.
Human knowledge had become unmanageably vast, every science had begotten a dozen more each subtler than the rest. The telescope revealed stars and systems beyond the mind of man to number or to name; Geology spoke in terms of millions of years, where men before had thought in terms of thousands; Physics found a universe in the atom, and biology found a microcosm in the cell; Physiology discovered inexhaustible mystery in every organ, and psychology in every dream; Anthropology reconstructed the unsuspected antiquity of man, archeology unearthed buried cities and forgotten states; History proved all history false, and painted a canvas which only a Spengler or an Eduard Meyer could vision as a whole.
- Will Durant, Preface to The Story of Philosophy
The world that we experience through our senses is a medium-sized world, where the smallest thing we can see and touch is perhaps the size of a grain of sand, and the largest is about the size of a skyscraper or mountain.
Above this world are the stars and galaxies, and below us are cells, atoms, and quarks. Every level of the universe seems to contain an inexhaustible density of creativity and beauty.
Even then, galaxies on one end and quarks on the other are only as far as our instruments can see. Whether or not the universe has limits is not yet something that we know.
These insights into the inexhaustible complexity of nature may be indications that our universe could similar to a fractal pattern, which is a mathematical shape with an infinite perimeter.
If you zoom into the shape from any direction, it will always change, unveiling more and more detail and complexity at each level.
The difference may be that at some point fractals always repeat, whereas we have no evidence that the universe does.
The story of us
The simplest way to understand the huge amount of complexity in the universe is to start at the beginning – with the Big Bang, and it’s story all the way up to modern day.
This story is known as big history, and it’s without a doubt￼ the most miraculous story ever conceived. We have a upcoming series on it which will be available here soon.
In the meantime – don’t be like the fish, be like David Attenborough scuba diving for the first time. Live with your eyes open, and see if you can appreciate our astonishing and wonderful home.