Blog VI. Think about this for a sec.
People tune out the overwhelming majority of information they receive from their senses. Almost everyone does, I think, except very young children, and perhaps people who are physically incapable of tuning out sensory information, as I've heard is the case with certain autistic people, for example.
Here's all that I mean. Right now, as I type this, here are just a few of the pieces of sensory information that I'm not paying any special attention to:
1) the softness of the chair I'm sitting on, which is tactile information;
2) more tactile info: the wetness of the small amount of mucus inside my nose right now, and the wetness of the saliva in my mouth. if my nose or mouth became extremely dry, due to an illness for example, suddenly I would notice the absence of those wetnesses; but unless they're suddenly taken away like that, I pay no active attention to them whatsoever, except if I do it on purpose, like I am now.
3) still more tactile info: if I try, I can feel the pressure of the toes of my left foot underneath my right foot, because my left foot happens to be underneath the right at the moment, for no particular reason. Similarly, I can feel the weight of my body resting against the chair I'm sitting on; come to think of it, I can identify exactly which parts of my body are against the chair, and exactly which parts aren't resting against the chair. I'll bet that you could do the same if you focused on it for a second, but you wouldn't have thought about it at all unless someone had asked you to. It's the kind of sensory data everyone normally tunes out.
4) I can't smell the smell of my own breath -- as far as I know, most people can't do that, and that's probably a very good thing, because human breath often smells bad or at least unpleasant whenever you pay close attention to its smell; most people only do that with other people's breath, of course, because it's difficult or impossible to actually smell one's own breath, even when it's become especially bad -- when you've had a dry mouth for a long time, for example. However, if I try, I can sense that there's a tiny bit of moisture or wetness in the air that is currently being exhaled from my nose. Can you sense that same wetness right now, in your nose? It's nearly imperceptible, of course, but exhaled air contains a significant amount of moisture.
5) my laptop is resting on a little plastic stand that elevates it slightly, and that stand makes a variety of very soft but easily noticeable noises: it gives off little tiny squeaks and pops, as the laptop shifts weight underneath my hands while I'm typing. Again, this sound is so slight that I almost never pay any attention whatsoever to it, but if I try, I can hear it easily.
6) more auditory information: the keys on my laptop make noises as they are pressed and released underneath my typing fingers. Tiny noises, easy to ignore, but also easy to pay attention to, if I try hard at all.
7) at this moment, in my field of vision are various objects of the following colors: brown, red, navy blue, baby blue, light grey, darker grey, purple, off-white, pink, khaki, gold, black, green, very light green, very dark green. I could go on for a very long time if I wanted to keep trying. Here are a few of the things I was thinking of, as examples: the colors in a painting that is hanging on the wall; the colors of paint on a rowing machine sitting on the other side of the room; the colors of fabric in the chair I'm sitting on; the colors of the body and screen on my laptop; the colors of the open windows in my word processing program, and behind that window, in an open browser window ... and above both of those, there's a menu bar that contains bits of at least
five six colors (red, yellow, dark grey, light grey, black, white).
Do you see what I'm getting at yet? :) All that sensory information is coming at me right this very second, but I'm ignoring almost all of it, because my attention is on the words on the screen as I type them. However, if I try, I can instantly identify all those bits of sensory info, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of other distinct pieces of info. You could too, if you were asked to do so, but you may find it hard to do so without being asked, because you tune out so much information all the time that it's actually difficult for you to pay attention to much of it at once.
One more example: start counting the number of objects in your field of vision, right now. How many different letters can you instantly recognize and identify separately on the screen in front of you? I'll bet that all 26 of the letters in the alphabet are on your screen at this very second, and if you tried, you could find all of them. Okay, let's see, I'm going to try that now; it's 9:56 A.M. as I start my attempt. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q (that took a while to find), R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. It's now 10:00 A.M., so it took about four minutes for me to pay attention to all that sensory data. I'll bet I could have saved a minute if I hadn't been stubborn about refusing to scroll in the windows on my screen in order to find certain letters (I wanted to see if I could do it without scrolling at all, and I could, but it probably went a little slower that way).
I'll bet some people could identify those same letters in under a minute, while other people would need five or six minutes, because different people are able to focus on bits of data at different rates of speed ... Some people can read much more quickly than others, for example.
From where I sit, I can hear the refrigerator humming, from where it sits, in the kitchen next to this room. I have a very mild case of tinitis from seeing far too many live concerts without wearing earplugs, so any time I want to, I can hear a shrill whistle in my ears; I have to focus on it, though, because I normally tune it right out. :)
I doubt anyone read all of that, but perhaps if you did, you found it just as astonishing as I did, how many separate bits of sensory data I was able to identify and describe simply because I was trying to do just that. I'll bet that if you or I tried hard enough, we could each identify hundreds more things in our immediate surroundings right this very second.
Imagine what you could do if you managed to pay attention to just slightly more things at once ...
Imagine what you might be able to do if you could pay attention to slightly fewer things at once! If each of us lives in an environment that contains thousands of instantly-identifiable features, would it help us to accomplish certain tasks if we arbitrarily reduced that number? Well, that probably depends. We all know that receiving too much loud auditory information makes it difficult to focus on certain things, for example, if I were in a crowded room, I wouldn't be able to write this blog entry anywhere near as quickly, because I would have to tune out dozens of human voices constantly in order to focus on what I was writing.
The moral of the story is, perhaps: you know things that you don't realize you know, because you're putting effort into ignoring so many things at once. Mebbe.
Food for thought. :)