How do you know what to look and listen for when assessing a situation or building a perspective? At every waking moment, you are engaged in sensing the world around you. We all have an inherent skill in what neuroscientists call saliency.
According to Wikipedia, the saliency of an item is the state or quality by which it stands out from its neighbors. Saliency detection is considered to be a key attentional mechanism that facilitates learning and survival by enabling organisms to focus their limited perceptual and cognitive resources on the most pertinent subset of the available sensory data.
Making this process explicit and cultivating it as a skill enhances one’s ability to sense, probe, categorize, analyze, and act.
Open the Doors of Perception
What we find salient can be a matter of life and death. If you fail to pick out the red truck screaming through the intersection 4 seconds after the opposing stop light turns red, you might accelerate to great injury. In this moment, like all others, the brain is receiving a vast amount of information.
The eyes are seeing all of the textures of the buildings, sidewalks, trees, the movement and trajectories, the colors, depth, and much more. The skin is feeling the pedals, the clothes, the steering wheel, the temperature, the wind from the open window, the car’s locomotion, and much more. The ears hear the sound of the radio, the engine, the breath, the traffic, the people at the crosswalk, and much more. The nose is smelling the coffee, the truck exhaust, the scent of the daffodils blooming, the perfume, and much more. The mouth is tasting the coffee, the bit of pepper stuck in the teeth from breakfast, the leftover toothpaste, and much more.
Of that 11 million bits per second, it is said that we process only 120 of those bits at one time, or .000001 percent, one one-hundred thousandth, of the total. Our brain is constantly acting to filter out almost every single bit of information we receive. And as an adaptive capability, it is likely that our ability to filter out information is getting stronger given the vast quantities of information we are now exposed to, estimated at 5 times what we received just 35 years ago. It seems that at present we have no practice that meaningfully increases the amount of information the brain can process.
If our goal is to be more effective at sensing and operating, we must turn our attention to…attention itself. If we’re hard coded for 120 bits then harnessing the power of the conscious mind to select the most useful bits from the information array is a skill to cultivate. Development of the faculties through meditation and awareness practices is key to entering a being state necessary to effectively observe and direct one’s own attention. The monkey mind is cunning. Without discipline and practice it quickly will lead one astray of the moment’s most relevant information bits.
Through concerted effort over time, the mind can be tamed by you, the combination of your conscious awareness, intention, and will. This is the “power of now” that is heralded by many. Its gift is full presence with the information being transmitted by the senses. Then through attention the filtering process can be engaged with rather than simply run on automatic. Here the confluence of gnosis (wisdom from experience), frameworks and models, intuition, and don’t know mind become one’s toolkit for filtering in the moment.
As this information filtering processes at high frequency, we can begin to make note of the various pieces of information that we find most salient. But salience is different from relevance. In the car example above, we may notice that a woman standing at the crosswalk is wearing a blue-and-yellow polka dot dress and that “sticks out” (is salient) because grandma used to wear a dress just like it. Just because we found that piece of information standing out from its neighbors does not mean that it is relevant or meaningful to the task at hand. In fact, it may be that very salient information bit, the dress, that is the distraction that has you not looking as you accelerate into the car crash. The dress is salient, but not relevant, to the task at hand, driving safely.
Arriving at meaningful data then becomes a step-down process of filtering. First from the 11 million bits to the 120 that we find salient. Then from that 120 bits into the few that we find relevant, repeating many times a minute to arrive upon a relevant information data set. Memory then enters the picture as the process that stores and retrieves similar bits to build a consolidated view of an assemblage of bits.
Weak arguments and poor understanding is built upon a smaller number of variables of relevant data points. Robust positions and deep nuanced understanding is built upon a larger number of variables and data points.
Our effort in understanding the world around us is to build mental models that most accurately reflect how reality actually works. This is difficult because reality is exceedingly complex and the limits of the brain’s bit processing capacity. This is the great potential of artificial intelligence as applied to sense-making but that’s a different article.
Our goal is to develop the knack for finding what’s most relevant, understand how those bits interact with other bits, and assemble interactive, complex models that guide our decision making and actions. If we’re not moving particles in the 3D then this is all mental masturbation – fun but not procreative.
When this process is complete (11 million bits → 120 salient bits → relevant bit filtering at high frequency → memory storage and retrieval → assembled into a working mental model → action ), it’s important to now challenge this new perspective. Given the very complexity of this physiological and mental process, it is our nature to be prone to errors in our thinking (fallacies and biases). If a position is to hold water, then it must by necessity stand up to inspection and critique.
Where to Settle
Recently I’ve been inquiring about the best place to plant roots and build community. This exploration has me thinking deeply about what’s most important in the place we live. As easy as it is to determine what’s important, it’s more important how each of the criteria is weighted. Any number of criteria can be deemed relevant and the same set of criteria can lead to different outputs depending on how the decision variables are weighted.
For the sake of making it easy, we’ll use five criteria to illustrate the point. In the following chart I use four different weighting versions to arrive at four different conclusions that are part of the decision set.
Weighting Version 1
Weighting Version 2
Weighting Version 3
Weighting Version 4
Spacious / non-metro-sized population
Proximity to international airport
Favorable 20- and 40-year
United States City
Santa Fe, NM
Santa Barbara, CA
In making a long-term decision like this, deciphering which set of variables stand out from the mass of possibilities is the first and most important step. One could consider schools, healthcare, crime, weather, education, economics, housing, politics, job market, and much much more. It’s easy now to see side-by-side comparisons of all of these variables and more.
Weighting a large number of variables means by necessity the weights you start assigning become very small and distinguishing how a 10% weighting might differ from a 6% weighting in altering the outcome becomes tricky. This means that it is just as important to understand what is not relevant to the decision at hand. Ultimately there is a set of criteria that is more relevant than the rest. How weights are assigned to these variables gets into the complicated realm of polling and regression.
It seems that our brains can do this type of weighting on the fly. Back to the car example where two bits of information hit the brain at the same time, polka-dotted dress and vehicle moving through a crosswalk as the light is green. With or without prior training, the brain is likely to assign a very low relevance weight to the dress when a vehicle is moving into a collision trajectory. The brain automatically organizes for the most meaningful bit in relation to survival which is an adaptive trait from an evolutionary blink-of-an-eye ago when early Sapiens were hunter gatherers. These predator instincts have evolved in many species to sort for the right bits of information.
Together saliency, the information step down process, and weighing comprise essential elements of healthy decision-making. Situational training, whether in the military, for a flight steward, or on the soccer field, creates a situation which mimics the information landscape of an actual situation and allows the player to practice their saliency, relevancy, and weighting skills in real time.
Why It Matters
Shining the light of consciousness on the way the brain functions physiologically and mentally gives valuable insights into the hard-and-soft coding driving our thoughts and decisions. In developing proper epistemics it is useful to understand the mechanisms which are prone to error, fallacy, and bias, topics to be explored in a later post.
By understanding the anatomy of the brain, the evolutionary purpose of each part, and how that might be shifting given modern stimulus, a practitioner of regenerative and sense-making technologies can purposefully design with these tendencies in mind. This means using saliency and weighting to guide both the design process itself and the very environment being engaged with.
In this learning path, what’s next is deeper dives into the latest cognitive science, fallacy and bias, the role that emotion plays in cognition, and how the nervous system affects these functions.