There is an astonishing amount of information from the environment flooding into your brain every single second. Think just about the information picked up by your sensory organs. All the sounds your ears can hear, all the light, colours and shapes your eyes can see, all the scents your nose can smell, all the textures your body can feel, all the flavours your tongue can taste. All of these, plus all the information being sent to the brain from within your body, plus all the information generated by your brain itself (your thoughts, memories, imaginings), are continuously flooding through the billions of neurones in your brain.
Why doesn’t that overwhelm us?
I’m nor sure anyone can fully answer that question, but at least we do know we have two ways of dealing with all these continuously changing information flows.
One way handle it is to use our brains as filters or valves.
William James, the psychologist said
one function of consciousness is to carve out of the vast sensory environment—what he called the “blooming, buzzing confusion”—a manageable, edited-down version. Only a limited amount of information reaches our conscious awareness, and for the very good reason that the majority of it is irrelevant.
The “blooming, buzzing confusion”….nice phrase!
He thought that
consciousness selects from the world at large elements that are of particular value and interest to it
In other words, consciousness enables us to “edit” the information flows, to focus on what is of “value and interest” – that, of course, opens up a whole other can of worms about how we decide what is of “value and interest”, but let’s leave that for another day.
Henri Bergson, the philosopher, argued that the brain’s function
was to act as a kind of “reducing valve,” limiting the amount of “reality” entering consciousness.
“The brain is the organ of attention to life,” and the part it plays is that of “shutting out from consciousness all that is of no practical interest to us
Same idea as James…..the brain, or consciousness at least, as an editor, or a valve. In both cases the idea is that we reduce the full flow of information and pay attention to only part of it.
Iain McGilchrist argues that this is primarily the function of the left hemisphere – which “re-presents” the information flows to the brain.
There are great benefits to be had from being able to abstract information from the vast rivers washing through our brains, to be able to focus, and to concentrate on, just a subset, or a part of the world. We use this ability to both “grasp” and manipulate the world…..to exert our will on it, to exert control.
The downside is that we can begin to forget that we’re doing the editing in the first place. We lose sight of the filters and valves and think that what we “see” is all there is.
As Gary Lachman says in his “Secret History of Consciousness”
Yet one drawback to the brain’s highly efficient ability to focus on necessities is that it “falsifies” reality, which, as Bergson earlier argued, is in truth a continuous flow of experience…….The mind constantly takes snapshots, as it were, of reality, which enables it to orient itself amidst the flux. The problem is that science, which takes the most comprehensive snapshots, makes the mistake of confusing the photographs with reality itself.
This is exactly the problem Iain McGilchrist describes in “The Master and His Emissary”.
We have another way of knowing which is different from this editing, filtering, re-presenting way. We know by seeing connections, by experiencing the whole. Bergson describes that as intuition. A good example of that is how you answer the question “How are you?” You can ask yourself, “How is my energy today?” and you will come up with an answer instantly. You don’t have to edit, filter, or quantify anything, you know it holistically, or “intuitively”.
I’ve seen the same function again and again when visiting patients. Instantly, even before anyone speaks or before any “findings” are discovered, an experienced doctor knows he or she has to act quickly. The consultant who taught me Paediatrics, said on my first day at work with him that his aim was to teach me “how to recognise an ill child”. I thought that a strange comment at the time, but that’s exactly what he did. That recognising is a holistic, intuitive function which comes with experience.
Here’s Lachman again, in reference to Bergson
Just as we have an immediate, irreducible awareness of our own inner states, through intuition we have access to the “inside” of the world. And that inside, Bergson argued, was the élan vital
The neuroscientist Wolf Singer who looks at the problem of “binding” – of how the brain puts all this information together, says
there is a process in the brain that is itself antireductionist and is concerned with creating wholes out of parts, and hence with giving meaning to our experience.
I suspect this is exactly what McGilchrist highlights as the main function of the right hemisphere.
Isn’t it amazing that our brain can enable us to know in these two amazing ways? To edit, and to bind together; to filter, and to see patterns which enable us to discern meaning?
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