381. It Looks Like Some Kind of Duck

December 12, 2014

Feelings of expectancy signal a readiness to welcome incoming sensory stimulation into particular pathways through our brains. Without such preexisting pathways, our minds would be eternally naïve regarding whatever current stimulation they might receive, and our welcome, devoid of expectancy, would be equally shallow on every occasion.

But in fact our histories of earlier stimulation in particular situations have significantly altered our readiness to receive further examples, so from the start we favor some patterns over others, while not recognizing those we have not met with before.

On the other hand, distinct sensory contrast or motion direct attention to a notable feature within the overall pattern of ambient energy that our sensory receptors receive (wasp in the jam, cherry atop the sundae, smudge on a clean sheet). In short order, we recognize that feature as matching a familiar pattern of perceptual activation and inhibition.

If that pattern of ambient energy is novel in our not having noticed it before (or not having remembered it), we may dismiss it as irrelevant because it is not what we are looking for.

But if the situation warrants (because of frequent repetition or strong emotion such as shock or surprise), that same pattern may ignite long-term remembrance. In that case, we can search our semantic memories for a suitable label to associate with that particular pattern: It looks like some kind of duck, a merganser perhaps; it doesn’t match a common or red-breasted merganser, maybe it’s a hooded merganser. Yes, it has that white patch at the rear of its crest. That’s what I’ll call it.

Such a sequence of perceptual events can take place across a wide range of discriminations or levels of detail regarding the patterns we are dealing with. We can perceive grossly or finely, remotely or closely, depending on our need at the moment in accord with what we feel is warranted by our current situation.

We shift the scale of our discernment to meet our interest at the time, allowing us to peer at, say, the hand weaving of a Navajo rug through a magnifying glass, or to step back to gain an overall sense of the pattern as if we were to imagine hanging it on the wall of our living room.

In general, experts and professionals make the extra effort required to appreciate the more detailed view, while laypersons settle for a quick scan from a greater distance in keeping with their everyday needs.

The discriminating observer takes pains to encompass a wide range of details in her understanding of a given sensory pattern of particular interest. A once-over-lightly approach is suitable to the curiosity level of the casual passer-by.

That whole series of events—fitting a particular sensory pattern to a preexisting route determined by a corridor of neurons reserved for members of a given concept bearing a familiar name—represents the categorization or recognition function of mind as the upshot of a given instance of perception. This function is the mind’s response to the question, What’s happening now? What’s going on? What am I seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, and so on?

 

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