Our experience of the world around us is based on our five senses. Everything that we are aware of around us, everything that we know is ultimately based on the sensory information we gather through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
As each of us has always had access to these senses, and all the direct evidence we gather about the world is sensory-based, we tend not to reflect much on the fidelity of our senses or the limited aspects of reality we are privy to sense. Many of us hold the implicit assumption that we sense all that is worthwhile to sense and that the way objects and phenomena appear to us, is their correct and only representation.
Also, many of us hold the implicit assumption that two items that look the same to us, actually look the same in “reality”.
Pragmatically, this is a very sensible approach, since questioning our only source of information about the world might lead to hesitation and inaction. It allows us to act swiftly and decisively in everyday life, gives us the confidence to rely on our knowledge about the world for future planning and actions. On the other hand, being aware that there might be more to know about the world than what we can directly sense holds incredible power as well. Unconsciously, and also consciously, phenomena outside the perceptible range of our 5 senses are “unknown unknowns” to us – we are not even aware that we are ignorant about their existence.
By gaining perspective on the limitations of our sensory apparatus, and thus of our model of the world, we may be able to become more permissive about other perspectives on “reality”.
Sensation, Perception, Cognition
From the perspective of the current neurosciences the process of perception and cognition is a very fluid one that happens throughout our nervous system and does not lend itself to be split into discrete stages. In order to structure our exploration, I will nonetheless talk about this process in three stages that are more for the benefit of structuring the information than rooted in any neuroscientific differentiation:
The sense information that is directly available to our five physical senses. Even though at even the earliest states of sensation some information processing is performed, the physical setup of our senses already structures the information that we are capable of sensing.
The information processing we apply to the current sensory-based information to organize our experience, to navigate the world.
Our knowledge of the world independent of our current perception.