Each of us experiences a different slice of the same physical reality. None of us know all of it, yet we assume it is the same. However, the effect of our localized experiences imprints uniquely on each one of us. The decisions we make and the behaviors we perform are based on our internal understanding of what the external reality is. The formation of our internal (mental) worldview is crucial for understanding how we think and behave.
Our shared genetic heritage automatically, before consciousness, fills in missing data. For instance, our visual space does not have holes for things we don’t see. However our internal worldview is not exclusively sensory, it is also built by our needs, fears, wants, and goals. The sources of these non-tangible aspects of our worldview will be developed in Brain through the Ages and Development to the Adult Mind.
Although we share a broad genetics, there are specific individual differences, like neural threshold levels, which idiosyncratically mold the way sensory data is categorized.
Figure 2.1 captures, at a high level, the stages an adult’s understanding of the external world goes through as we struggle our way through daily life. This initial depiction of the path goes clockwise from the top left. It’s much simplified to major items. Later pages develop the stages further, but let’s consider this figure first.
Upper left. External Physical World
The external world is complete and connected. It is vast and mostly unavailable to any single one of us, yet each of us assume that the pieces we perceive are reflective of the overall world. This point of view projection lies at the core of many objective-subjective debates. Since we each perceive unique portions of reality, we each project unique totalities of reality. That’s all very abstruse at this time. Take a glance at the flash fiction story, “Alien Sofa“, for a concrete example.
Now, philosophers may argue about whether the world exists or is just imagined in one’s mind. I’m not a philosopher. I’m more pragmatic. Such solipsism has no utility.
Upper right. Sensed Physical World
The initial neural response is to categorize the data obtained via individual senses and send the categories further into the brain for enhancement.
The portion of that complete reality we see is often incomplete and disconnected. Would it surprise you to learn that only 30–100 of the many millions of bodily impulses traveling up the spinal cord make it beyond the brainstem? It’s true and even that limited number is further weaned by the limbic system, according to our needs, goals, and fears. Only a select few signals, from the spinal cord, reach our frontal cortex and our conscious attention.
Of course, information from cranial senses – sight, audio, taste, and odor – come more directly into the cortex. That data is significantly enhanced by our cortical processing. In this stage, the emphasis is extracting objects from our local environment.
As will be mentioned many times, the neural threshold (the magnitude of electrical potential a neuron’s dendrites must deliver to cause it to fire) is not one set value for all humans. It is a range. Since we individually can have unique neural threshold, that provides another avenue by which we may perceive things differently, in the event two of use experience the same reality slice.
Lower right. Primitive Mental World
Before cranial sensory data is available for conscious consideration, it is further accumulated into combined information. A person looks at the sensed physical world and uses their needs, goals, and fears to assess the physical facts for utility. These stored memories and traits result from the limbic system merging the 3S Imperatives – Satiety, Sex, and Safety – onto the sensed physical reality. These new, augmented and abstracted categories simplify analysis by removing non-interesting information. The collection of the resulting categories can be labeled a situation.The current situation is inductively compared against remembered situations. One of our needs may be satisfied in a particular remembered situation while other needs aren’t. In other words, the emotional valence of a particular situation rarely satisfies completely. This is the start of the explanation to why we often feel conflicted in our choices.
Lower left. Effective Mental World
So far, this path from external to internal is the same for man as for lower animals. Now though, we subject the categorized data to assessment by our intellect, both by logic and by similarity to experience. With learned knowledge, we smooth and link our situations and their component categories together. Our knowledge and presumptions about relationships between categories creates a tidier internal worldview upon which we will base our actions.
With our knowledge incomplete and our understanding of interconnections imperfect, we may enforce consistency and logic only within limited domains of our worldview. That’s a source of cognitive dissonance. An example of domains with scope is an individual whose warm and sincere in personal dealings yet ruthless in business transactions.
For simplicity I’ve shown processes in Figure 2.1 as uni-directional, actually there is a rapid interchange of preliminary recognitions that are shared across the various, simultaneously occurring processes. For instance, a first impression in the sensed physical world stage which promises to satisfy completely the sexual imperative can direct attention back to specific areas of the external physical world for further details right away.
Learning with Uncertainty