Awareness – Perception – Priming your perception

Friday, February 29th, 2008 at 5:40 pm.
by pre.

In Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson suggested an exercise which can be pretty instructive:

1. Visualize a quarter vividly, and imagine vividly that you are going to find the quarter on the street. Then, look for the quarter every time you take a walk, meanwhile continuing to visualize it. See how long it takes you to find the quarter.

(English readers might get a better result using a 5p piece, adjust for your local currency)

Wilson advises that you try this exercise at least three times. The first time as a control, the second time imagining that there are quarters lying around in the street everywhere that you might find, and the third time imagining that you can materialize street-money with the power of your mind.

Now it’s clear from context that Wilson finds it more likely he’ll find the pavement-pennies when he thinks he can magic them out of thin air. Presumably that’s the results he got when he was testing. Personally I found that I found the 5p piece more quickly, on average, when searching for money I thought must surely already be there, lying just around the next corner. But it was close. Way within the margins of error.

Here’s what’s interesting though: Usually it’d take less than a month to spot some road-riches, more quickly than if I wasn’t visualizing at all of course, but the coin that I find was always the coin that I was searching for. I never spotted a 2p piece while searching for a 5p. I never spotted a pound coin, or a 20, or a 50, or a 1p. Even the buttons and washers I spotted were all about the same size and shape as a 5p coin.

Why would this be? I mean it’s clear that actually looking will mean you find something more quickly, more of your attention and time will be spent on it, but why should it be that you’ll find the very thing you’re looking for rather than something else?

Consider this. It’s a common enough experience, I’m sure it’s happened to us all: you’ve been listening to some pop song, and the singer’s voice is so tortured and drawling that you can’t make out what the hell he’s trying to squeal. Was that something about dragons? Did he say he wanted to hear a fake dragon roar?

Then months later you hear a cover of the song, and the words are more clear, and they’re so obvious and right that you know now what’s being said. Listening to the original again you find that despite the lyric still being scrawled and mewled as much as sung, despite the same pressure-waves, the same noises reaching your ear as before, you can hear the words now. And never again will you struggle to understand or perceive it.

Your senses, your attention, has been primed.

Sine Wave Speech

If you’ve ever heard ’sine wave speech’ it’s primed your auditory system. Just listening to these strange noises in the right context changes forever the way you hear a few bleeps and whistles.

We understand the basis upon which this happens down to a very basic level; it’s a result of the way neurons function and grow, of what’s called Hebbian learning, often summarized as “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Your brain is a pattern matching machine. It’s constantly looking for similarities, for examples, clones, imitations. So when you visualize that quarter, you’re reinforcing the pattern, the archetype of the coin in your mind. By imagining it lying on a pavement, you teach your brain to better spot things that are like that. Which includes the shade, shape, size, shine, and situation. You’re more likely to notice it because you’ve trained your brain to see it more easily. Effectively practiced seeing that kind of thing.

At any one time there are billions of patterns in your perception and memory, all fighting for your limited attention. Your massively-parallel neuronal system lets these patterns battle it out in a metaphorical war, those which have been the most reinforced, those patterns it finds most familiar, those wires that have fired most together, are the ones that will finally win your attention.

Which means that the more you can get memes like “street” and “shiny” and “find” and “5p” or “quarter” to associate together, the more primed your pattern-matching brain is to notice when a combination of those things comes up. The more likely you are to notice when you see something that’s close to that pattern. Which means you’re more likely to spot the edge-case.

Some people take this effect to be magical, proof that what you believe will happen will happen, like conciousness itself can effect the physical structure of the universe. It’s a convincing illusion too; you’ll be more likely to see what you think will happen as a direct neurological consequence of expecting to see it. Especially if you fantasize a little about what it’ll look like.

More than just convincing, it’s also a useful illusion. If it makes you spot opportunities, go out and do things, search out what you seek, then the illusion can make your life better. Which of course reinforces the illusion again since it makes you think you’re on the right track.

Are we better off believing the illusion?

Are we then better of believing this illusion? In short: No.

These neurological effects aren’t actually based on belief that they work. They’re based on neurological Hebbian learning. On electrochemical and computational processes. If we understand the process we can better manipulate ourselves using it. Spend time visualising the right things instead of wasting our time trying to convince ourselves we can levitate as Wilson apparently did.

These effects probably even work better when you understand their mechanism. You can smile knowingly to yourself and think I’ve just noticed that pattern because I’ve been priming myself to do so, and realize that this is proof that it’s working. You can pay attention to the changes in your brain as you feel them, which always makes practice work more efficiently. You can predict the affects of your actions better, understand your own pattern-predilections and so know which imagery and associations are likely to help you notice the desired opportunities or reinforcements. In general, you have more control than an unsophisticated groping attempt to to visualize yourself thin or powerful or owning a large bank account or experiencing metaphysical transcendence or whatever.

Do try out the exercise though. Let me know how you get on.

Guided Meditation File 1 – Awareness – Perception
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