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Mindfulness and Perception

Several years ago, I started looking more closely to what was going on around me. The more I looked the more I realized the depth and complexity of what most of call “our experience”. However, what was fascinating was just how different “our experience” was from one another. We more or less have the same senses but ask any two people to observe a person, place or thing and you get two different views.

Sure there are similarities, we have the many such common experiences, but the differences are legend. Think for a moment about reading this text: the filtering that is taking place both consciously and unconsciously of the information (data), our brains are receiving. You might find yourself shifting your weight in your seat, moving your arms, moving your eyes across the page, shooing an annoying fly, holding a cup of coffee all the while you are thinking about the words and concepts, relating them to your own experience and memories.

In The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders,T (1998) there is a interesting table titled “Information Flow in Sensory Systems and Conscious Perception”.

(Bits/s) (Bits/s)

Eyes 10,000,000 40
Ears 100,000 30
Skin 1,000,000 5
Taste 1,000 1
Smell 100,000 1

The flow of information into our system is enormous but as the table indicates, we are conscious of just a fraction of the data. It is no wonder we see, hear, feel, taste and smell differences…and it also gives you a good idea of just how astonishingly complex our brains are. Filtering that volume of information every second and making sense of it is let us say, amazing.

Let us just look at Nonverbal communication (NVC), usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless messages.

According to Wikipedia, “NVC can be communicated through gesture and touch (Haptic communication), by body language or posture, by facial expression and eye contact. NVC can be communicated through object communication such as clothing, hairstyles or even architecture, symbols and infographics. Speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, emotion and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation and stress. Dance is also regarded as a nonverbal communication. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the use of emoticons.”

NVC is only one small portion of our communication structure. Add to that language, context, conceptual mapping, emotions, drives and the primary operations of identification, evaluation and engagement and you have lots to think about as well.

I am fascinated by interpersonal communication, perception, and much of what I do while coaching is work within this domain. We perceive the world very differently although for the most part have the same senses. We also have unique and similar ways of evaluating and engaging the world, some of which could be called elegant and other not so much.

So how do we understand more about what we know is the truth, reality? How can the same problem be perceived so many different ways? Can we learn to expand our perceptual abilities in a meaningful enough way to improve our choices? Are you sure we see, feel, and hear the same things?

In Mel Brooks file, “History of the World – Part 1″ there a scene during the Roman period where a number of people are waiting in line to collect unemployment. Mel Brooks steps up to the window and is asked by Bea Arthur.

“What is your profession.”

Mel arrogantly replies, throwing his head back “I am a standup philosopher.”

Bea looks at him boorishly and asks, “A what?”

With great arrogance “I am a standup philosopher, I comprehend the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension”

Bea, with all the mockery she can muster (which is considerable) says, “So you are a bullshit artist.”

It is a funny bit in a very funny movie but it seems to relate to my point here…it is about perspective. To one a philosopher to the other a bullshit artist… all in the space of a few gestures and words.