Ecological Perception

Laura Seawall explains that our five senses, especially sight, are a fundamental bridge in connecting with our environment. Given our tendency to value cognitive processes as more important than the characteristics of our physical nature, learning to fully utilize our perceptual capabilities could help us to better integrate the mind-body split that has plagued humanity throughout history and provide us with another avenue of connection with our habitat. Animals have heightened perception of their environment as a basic disposition of their survival. Human beings could incorporate certain aspects of animal perception and behavior as a further identification with their evolutionary makeup and ability to perceive in an enhanced manner.

Scientific research has shown that shifts in perception alter consciousness that, in turn can result in changes in behavior as well. Such behavioral changes, if predicated on connecting with the world around us, could develop into positive eco friendly values, attitudes and behaviors. Seawall discusses five perceptual practices along with insights into how we can learn to use each of them more extensively than we typically due in everyday life. The five practices include: 1. visual attentiveness and mindfulness, 2. perceiving relationships, contexts and interfaces, 3. developing perceptual flexibility, 4. perceiving depth and 5. employing imagination with intention.

Visual Attending

Attending is the enrichment of sensory information that has been chosen to focus on. Attention that is focused and intentional produces sensory input that is lavish in information. There are two types of attending, endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous attending can be thought of as an unconscious condition of perceptual inclination that is directed at internal desires, needs and priorities. It selects particular information or affirms expectations from what we are seeing in the moment and helps us find what we are searching for. It also can help us focus on familiar or novel stimuli and create distinctions between them as well. An example of this process might be the discovery of the difference between two different species of related animals such that now we are more aware of the other species than we were before and can now readily identify it upon observation. Having no experience with certain visual elements can cause an opposite effect or an inability to perceive or identify sensory data as well. In summary, endogenous attention is oriented at selecting or filtering sensory input related to our familiarity and expectations of our environment and with our internal needs and wants as well. 

This process of filtering the visual world in conjunction with our previous experiences perpetuates our worldview. This can be both advantageous or quite the opposite depending on the context or content in question. By choosing information that is only consistent with our expectations and knowledge, this input may reinforce habitual thinking and perceptions as well as preferences and things we dislike or are in denial about. If, however, we attend intentionally without pre-considerations, we will be interpreting the world as it really is or as objectively as we possibly can. Thus, if we desire to see nature as it is, we must be receptive to perceiving its many physical characteristics such as its form, texture, color, shape, size and beauty from an aesthetic sensibility that provokes and appeals to our senses. From this disposition of awe and appreciation, a state of interconnectedness with our habitat may ensue.

Exogenous attention differs in that it refers to the way in which we are attracted to novelty or change via our visual field. This capability is oriented towards the evolutionary function of locating potentially advantageous or dangerous situations. Development of this ability requires receptivity and sensitivity to spatial and temporal changes in the environment or being able to see beyond the framework from which we tend to interpret the world.

In summary, our internal and external focus of attention both influences and creates subjective reality by enabling the discernment of selected objects, relations, and events to the omission of others. Although perception is quite subjective, it strongly influences our behavioral repertoire. Relating to our environmental predicament, attending is an important if not vital tool that can be employed to address environmental problems and foster appropriate eco friendly behaviors.

Both forms of attention, internal and external, are very dynamic, fluid and flexible processes. Due to the fact that some degree of attention-oriented focusing is automatic, it is easy to take this function for granted, however, research in perceptual psychology has ascertained that: 1.the ability to attend is a learned skill but also requires some effort; 2. attending contains beneficial influences related to processing visual information and 3.how we place our focus of attention influences or determines our subjective reality. Thus, attending processes have a significant role in the manner in which we receive and interpret the natural world. Another possibility is that the attention process creates patterns that may change neural routing in the brain creating more affinity toward preferred sensory input.

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