Visual Perception, Abstraction and Reality

This could be a long post due to the depth of this topic.  However, I’m going to keep this one short. 

I suggest that our mind abstracts what our senses perceive to create context.  The context is dynamic as our senses measure change both in our bodies and in the surrounding “non-body”, aka the “world”, and both are in flux.  

When the mind abstracts, it chooses an abstraction model. We have a large number of them based on our experiences, and we can make more when needed which is often what is meant by the word “creativity”.  I use the term abstraction in the sense that it is a filter obscuring some sense input and some thought processes while focusing on and amplifying others.  This is common in our experience and easy to demonstrate.  Look out the window.  Make note of what you see.  Now, look at the wall of one building or a single tree or flower and focus on the colors, lines, cracks, texture and shadows.  This adjusts your abstraction model and allows information of this kind to be particularly noticed, but now you are not focused on the larger scale context.  In your first look out the window you did not see these details as the abstraction filter at that time was tuned to the scale of the entire landscape in front of you.  Scale, context, sensing, emotions and abstraction models are important parts of what the mind is doing.  I think these processes are what we mean when we describe what conciousness means.  I’ll not dwell on them in this post, but they are important, in constant flux, not static, and go unnoticed unless we take some effort to direct the mind’s attention to them.

There are a variety of optical illusions that demonstrate that once an abstraction filter is selected, we tend to keep using it unless we are confronted with a problem for which the filter is not useful.  The one I always use to illustrate this is the picture that can be seen as a beautiful woman with elaborate hat, or an old women with large nose and white bonnet.  If you see one image you can not see the other.  In fact, the first time you see this image your mind will select one context and associate image.  You will not see the other image until you are told there is another image and you should try and find it.

Optical illusions are a demonstration not only of  how the mind processes sensory data, but at a deep level, of the way thinking is performed.  We think with abstractions (filters) and without concicious effort, we do not immediately search for an alternative abstraction so long as the current one is “suitable”.  Here, suitable means self-consistent and satisfying.  We sense when the information we are thinking about, filtered by the abstractions we are currently using, don’t make “sense” of ourselves and the world in the current context.  We emotionally feel what “don’t make sense” is as an uncomfortable feeling of inconsistency, or lack of wholeness, or completeness.  I suggest that sensing inconsistency is part of what Pirsig draws attention to when he focuses on Quality and its role in his Metaphysics of Quality.  High Quality contains consistency, while lack of consistency lowers Quality.

Okay, now for a practical application of abstraction filters.  You may have been keeping up with the current political debate about the budget.  President Obama published and reviewed his proposal for the 2012 budget (note, we currently don’t have a budget for 2011 and continue to operate on “funding resolutions”, but that’s another story).  There is wide agreement on the necessity to reduce the deficit. This agreement is at the scale you saw when you first looked out the window.  The arguments are over the details and methods of achieving deficit reduction.  That shifts the scale of your thinking, so you should be open to shifting you abstraction filter.

To help you decide what is an appropriate abstraction filter for this scale of thinking, take a look at this diagram and direct your thinking to how you would create a consistent (higher Quality) path toward reducing the deficit.

http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/newsgraphics/2011/0119-budget/index.html

In closing, its important to understand how systemic and instinctual the use of abstraction filters is for our mind as it makes sense of us and the surrounding world.  Once filters are selected we tend to continue using them, even when the context (scale) has shifted.  If you are more aware of the mind’s tendancy to keep using a filter, you can more freely look for other abstraction filters (or even create new ones if we want to) that are better suited to the context so the consistency of your thinking (Quality) is improved.

PS:  I just bumped into this article from O’reilly Radar and the accompanying video about the magazine business.  I think this illustrates the role of abstraction filters (in this context, the abstraction of a profit model in the magazine business) and the need to change them when there is dramatic shift in “scale”.

Video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QRtWGnNPTc4

Article:
http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/02/sam-jones-online-content.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+oreilly%2Fradar%2Fatom+%28O%27Reilly+Radar%29

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