How much of your world do you really see?
At any one time we are aware of only a tiny portion of the information that is available to us – both from our senses, and the internal dialogue created in our heads.
The human body sends 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second.
To deal with this discrepancy, a huge amount of compression and filtration takes place.
Compression occurs when information is processed outside of the conscious notice of our brain, and influences our decisions through unconscious feeling and bias.
But the vast majority of information is filtered. It’s like trying to capture the entire mouth of the Mississippi river which puts out 16 million liters per per second, with a 70 litre bucket. It’s hardly filtration at all – we notice basically nothing of what’s going on around us.
The Mississippi River
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley compares the function of the brain to a ‘reducing valve’ that narrows the stream of reality to a ‘measly trickle’.
Which part of this torrent of information we choose to focus on, called our ‘selective attention’ is what constructs our reality.
For example, check out the video below and count the number of times the players in white pass the basketball.
Our selective attention also affects us at a cultural level, as we tend to inherit the norms of our culture and 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.
People who move from one culture to another often comment on differences in food that locals don’t seem to realise.
These realities are the kinds of things we learn to filter out at a young age – things that we perceive to be unchanging, uninteresting, or not directly relevant to us, leaving us to focus on information we think is necessary for our day-to-day living.
This allows us to function, but it cuts us off from the seeing the universe as it is.
We can be trained to see outside of our usual selective focus. A surf life saver will see patterns in water that are invisible to almost all of us. 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.
It’s not that they have better eyes or ears than the rest of us, but rather that they are sensitive to subtle patterns in their environment that are usually filtered out or compressed.
Changes to our brain’s filtration and compression can also be induced. Psychedelic substances like psilocybin and LSD often create the sensation of ‘seeing the world anew’, with insights that can be carried over into sober states. Similar experiences can be brought about with trained meditation.
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
So how much of your world do you really see? The answer is less than a fraction of one percent.
It is vaster, richer, and deeper than you can imagine, but is always accessible.