the reality gap

I’ve been reading some interesting things about the brain and how we look at the world lately. one o the more interesting ones ive run across lately describes the way that our ears get information to our brains faster than our eyes can and both of them are faster than touch and smell. Hearing has a more direct (though still not instant) route to the brain while visual info needs to be reoriented the right way up among other modifications to the raw info before our mind “perceives” what we are looking at.  The differences are measured in milliseconds and yet if our minds presented this to us the way it receives the info we would hear words before the persons mouth had formed them, and we would see our hand touching a hot pan before we felt it. In an effort to give us a clearer picture of the world. Like the jarring sense of wrongness when a television shows sound and visuals are out of synch, it would be distracting to us to try to live in a world we observed this way. Our brains take all this info and edit it together so that we can understand it, but this also means that, by necessity, that we are not really living in reality.

By the time we perceive what is occurring it is already in the past,  we have gotten pretty good at working around this fact but as anyone who plays a musical instrument or walks the tightrope can tell you, sometimes the gap is still too much. The gap between perception and reality means that for lots of things we do at a high level of manual dexterity the mind is actually a hindrance instead of a helper. To think about the 300 notes in a metal guitar solo would be impossible and to then consciously force the fingers into the right combination and pressure on the strings is a feat that at the very least would destroy any possibility of sounding effortless and the chance of a smooth improvisation would be nil. The solution is practice. It requires that we train the body, consciously at first, to do what we require without having to “be in the driver’s seat” the whole time, we need to teach the hands and ears to work at the speed of reality without having to send everything through the tollbooth of the brain and then back out to the hands to say “ok now hold down the E string for .25 seconds”. Many baseball players have commented that they don’t really “see” the ball in flight, they simply swing where they “know” its going to be, the more they practice the better their guess is and the more often the ball hits the bat (and if you count foul balls and tips, the ball hits the bat most of the time).

Add to this the idea that our eyes are not perceiving things in one continuous stream, and it gets even more amazing (and unreal). Our eyes take dozens of snapshots per second and our minds fill in the gaps between using the images on either side of the gap. this generally works, but sometimes it doesn’t and we walk into a parking meter or miss a step on stairs and reality comes quickly to us in the form of a bruise. This is why slow motion film is so fascinating, we see a drop of water hit a puddle all the time, but it’s not until its slowed down hundreds of times that we see the tiny explosion, the halo of displaced water, and the bubble of surface tension pushing back upward.

One theory of schizophrenia is that the person suffering from the condition is simply perceiving all this sensory input in the “wrong” order. He or she may see one thing while hearing what occurred seconds or minutes earlier. Imagine how disconcerting it would be to hear the voice of someone who had left the room already or to feel the touch of someone who you have yet to see!

This is one of the things that makes trying to control every little outcome of our lives to futile, not only is randomness and others expectations fighting against us, but so is the fact that we are only ever perceiving a part of the information out there! Maybe one of the things that Zen Buddhism does is to help us live in that instinctual part of the mind that lets us hit baseballs, pull smooth tattoo lines, and play guitar solos. Maybe meditation is practice for living a little closer to reality as its occurring the same way that practicing kung fu is for blocking a punch your brain had not even perceived was on its way yet? It certainly feels that way! I definitely find myself feeling far less “suckerpunched”by life when I meditate regularly, it’s not that I don’t get upset when things go wrong, but that I see them in their proper context  little quicker and small set backs don’t cause outsized emotions and reactions the way they tend to when I’ve been off the cushion for some time.

Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “the reality gap

  1. Excellent post, Jason! I can relate to much of your examples, especially the guitar one. I am just beginning to learn guitar and and the “process” is a tough one. But you’re right, practice is the key, whether one is talking about Buddhism or anything else.

    A great reminder! Thanks!


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