02 January 2007

The Voice in Your Head - Or Why It's Difficult to Live Your Life as an Experiment

In keeping with the Welcome to the New Year! posts, I'd like to build on the notion of living your life as an experiment. Before delving into that, I'm going to argue that it is difficult to conduct your life as an experiment when you don't get data on reality - or perhaps more accurately, when all the data you get is so heavily narrated that it scarcely breaks through.

Your access to reality is obscured by the running commentary of the voice in your head. You have likely experienced reality only rarely since you’ve been about two years old. Babies are all possibility and potential. They can learn any language, assimilate any culture, or manifest about any personality. They learn more rapidly than a lecture hall full of students. As we age, the voice in our head matures and bombards us with questions, criticisms, commentary and meaning. It reaches particular conclusions and begins to filter out reality that doesn’t support those conclusions. As we age, our way of being is more prescribed, less malleable, and more defined. Why? I’d argue that it has nothing to do with the host of possibilities in the world around us. Reality has not changed. The voice in our head has changed. Or, rather, the voice in our head has increasingly taken the place of reality.

This may sound abstract, obtuse, or even odd. It might be all that, but it also aligns pretty well with research on cognition, on how the mind works.

It is true that you perceive the world around you, processing what comes in from your senses in the way of sounds, sights, and tastes. You are aware enough of the world outside of your head that you can drive down the street and safely stay off of people’s lawns. So how could the voice in your head really change your perception of reality? It can do this because the flow of data from the world to your senses is a fraction of the flow of information from your consciousness to your senses. Let me explain.

Research indicates that we process incoming sensations in layers. If something is before you, for instance, the brain first processes a blur of white, a crude shape. It next matches that color and shape to a database of shapes and determines it is a flower. At the next level of processing it determines that the flower is actually an orchid. Next, you determine that an orchid would please your Grandmother but not be particularly effective if you wanted to signal romantic interest. And then you start to think about relationships and the failure you had the last time you tried to turn a friendship into a romance, and how mortified you were that you were rejected. And suddenly you don’t see the orchid at all – you are lost in the ugly memory of rejection, of failed love and the voice in your head may even go so far as to conclude that you have no hope for romance. All of this because you saw an orchid. Your consciousness is informed by the flower – but it is filled even more with the memories, feelings, and conclusions that the flower triggered.

“The neurotic person distorts reality, makes demands upon it, imposes premature conceptualizations upon it, is afraid of the unknown and of novelty, is too much determined by his interpersonal needs to be a good reporter of reality, is too easily frightened, is too eager for other people’s approval, etc. It may be expected that as a culture improves, thereby improving the health of all its citizens, truth seeking should improve.”
- Abraham Maslow

There “are 10 times as many nerve fibers carrying information down [from higher to lower levels of the brain] as there are carrying it up [from lower levels to higher levels].”[1] The implication is that what we perceive does impact our consciousness, but that the impact of our consciousness on what we perceive is even greater. We have a mental construct that interprets a confusing set of data, making sense of it and calling that reality. Do you perceive orchids or rejection?

One well known but rarely reported fact of consciousness is this: “every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness.” “A million times more bits enter our heads than consciousness perceives.” [2] Your perception of reality is, at best, filtered. Worse, and all too commonly, it is distorted.

If you have ever seen a hypnotist at work, you know that our senses can be overridden by suggestion, by consciousness. Have you ever considered that a state of hypnosis might be closer to your normal state than simply perceiving reality for what it is?

So, why don’t we embrace reality? One reason is that we are simply compelled to make meaning, to assign interpretation, and make judgments. That’s what it means to be human. Another reason is that reality can seem overwhelming, the facts can seem too harsh. We retreat from accomplishment, which lives in the domain of reality, into reason, which lives in our mind. More specifically, we retreat from accomplishment and goals into reasons why we can’t accomplish our goals. Consider the possibility that you can’t face facts without faith that those facts are not a prison but are, rather, stepping stones. Reality is abuzz with possibilities. It is only the voice in your head that has already defined and bounded your life.

[1] Sandra Blakeslee, “Hypnosis gains respect, helps to see brain work: Those susceptible to suggestion see change in ‘truth,’” New York Times News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Thursday, November 24, 2005, A25.
[2] Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (New York: Penguin, 1999) p. 125 – 6.

1 comment:

Life Hiker said...

I'm thankful for all the sorting and throwing out that goes on in my head. I don't have to waste brain cycles processing stuff I've already finished with. Yet there is always the danger that I'll "filter out reality that doesn't support (my programmed) conclusions."

People appear to vary greatly in their ability to control their filtering process. I'm continually surprised by the number of people who simply respond to stimuli (usually other people or a new idea) with a reaction that is clearly programmed. Great opportunities are short-circuited in moments. I wonder what socialization processes trained these folks to unconsciously close their minds. In one case, I know it was simply "working for GM".

On the other hand, I've known a smaller group of people whose filters are clearly well-controlled. Knee-jerk reactions are rare in these people. Looking at their backgrounds, I see many unstructured situations where they had to fend for themselves without much external direction. They learned to enjoy the challenge of facing new realities and either making the most of them or learning from their failures.

People who continually act as "change agents" have most likely learned to suppress their filter. They live in the world of possibilities rather than preconceptions. They may never have heard of the Stockdale Paradox, but they live it. And I suppose the best teachers foster this kind of openness - we need more of them.

On the other hand