With memory always in the background, the flow of sensory stimulation proceeds—courtesy of arousal, curiosity, expectancy, and attention—from sensory receptors to the formation of sensory patterns (impressions or phenomena if not formal patterns) in conscious awareness.

Interacting with memory, those patterns are judged to be either recognizable or novel. If recognized, they are welcomed into one family or another of sensory experiences and given the family name (that’s a dog, a cat, an elephant, etc.); if novel, they are either skipped over as strangers, or given extra scrutiny in order to fit them to the closest family resemblance that makes them meaningful.

At which point we cease engaging perceptually with that incoming pattern of energy and shift to dealing with its conceptual meaning, giving it place in our hierarchy of meaningful understandings of how named patterns of energy fit together within the structure of our experience of such patterns as we are able to sort and recognize them as being related one to another.

In my view, personal consciousness asks three questions during the processing of incoming sensory stimulation:

  1. What’s happening?
  2. What does that mean in the context of my current situation?
  3. What, if anything, can I, or should I, do?

The first question is framed  by the mental department of sensory perception. The second question is framed by the department of personal meaning in the here and now. The third question is framed by the department of action appropriate to the answers given to the first two questions.

I gather those three parts into the process of situated intelligence, which, given our current situation, comes up with a judgment on how best to proceed so that our response fits with our understanding of just that particular situation. Our intelligence, that is, is not a general property we possess so much as a sense of familiarity in dealing with certain types of problems (predicaments) due to our training or lifetime experience.

No one is a match for all problems. That is why we specialize as mathematicians, tennis players, welders, diplomats, street sweepers, and so on. And why our skills improve with dedicated rehearsal, practice, and performance over and over again.

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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?