Perceptual Load and Meditation

One of the most astonishing results of a 10-day meditation retreat such as the two that I have done in the past two years is the flourishing of perceptual clarity and even frivolity at times. I will clarify what I mean by this in what follows, in addition to attempting to explain it under the framework of the psychological theory of perceptual load.

After a few days of intensive meditation, exceeding 10 hours per day, the world begins to appear in a far greater vividness and clarity than ever before. Especially astonishing is the perception of the motions of individual leaves on a vast tree as it gently sways in the wind, and how the whole structure is perceived as moving as one. Sunsets strike straight to the heart and yield tears sometimes on account of the sheer vigor of the painted hues that seem to speak so passionately from afar. The sounds of the forest inhabitants arrive with perfect lucidity as the precisely specified notes of a pastoral symphony of nature. All these examples are attempts to describe what is essentially indescribable in words since it is a phenomenal experience, preceding words and concepts in its directness and reality. There is a stark feeling at such moments that one apprehends reality in a manner vastly more direct than ever before, just as though a veil had been removed.
What I mean by the frivolity of the perceptual apparatus relates to cases where I would look at an ambiguous textured surface such as that which lined our dining tables, which was colored just like granite rock patterns. Under the circumstances, I would begin to perceive at will almost any shape or object I though of in the patterns. What struck me most about this was the incredible speed at which my mind would generate a percept as soon as I summoned up a concept. For example, I would think ‘car’ and immediately I would be able to find numerous instances of cars in numerous different views and shapes formed out of the patterns on the surface. And, even when I didn’t explicitly think of something, there was always a host of different objects appearing and disappearing at random in the patterns. This would occur whenever there was a confusion of shapes and colors in what I was looking at, such as on the patterned surface of the dining table, or the gravel on the path that we would walk along, or any other patterned or textured surface.
Perceptual load theory claims that stimuli will be processed into percepts only if there is spare capacity left over from the main task, which is the focus of attention. This means that when the main task is perceptually demanding, and hence exhausts perceptual capacity, other aspects of the world are just simply not processed, and so will not be perceived. Alternatively, when the main task at the center of attention is not demanding, there will be spare perceptual capacity, which ‘spills over’ and processes other stimuli unrelated to the task. This has always been framed in the literature with respect to tasks and the level of perceptual difficulty of these tasks, which occupy the center of the attentional spotlight.
My claim here is that meditation reduces the overall level of neural background noise stemming from the scattered and unfocused attention that is the symptom of that fundamental human ailment. This frees up perceptual capacity and allows the brain to perceive what it is being directed at with a far greater clarity than before, due to its exclusive processing thereof. In a way, what I am saying is the converse to the typical case that is used to demonstrate the phenomenon of perceptual load. Whereas in those cases, the perceptual difficulty of a central task is varied and the effect that this has on distractor perception is measured, the evidence I am offering, although anecdotal and introspective, concerns cases where attentional focus is varied and the effect this has on the clarity of perception is observed. In other words, typical experimental settings exhaust spare perceptual capacity by making the task demanding, whereas meditation allows spare perceptual capacity to be utilized by even the simplest of tasks by strengthening the concentrative power of attention.
Therefore, under this explanation, meditation allows more of the perceptual apparatus of the brain to be used in the processing of whatever is attended to, due to the fact that the attentional spotlight becomes extremely stable and does not scatter a million times a second, as in the non-meditator’s mind. May my attention grow unwavering and steady as the flame of the candle on a still and quiet night, that the world may attain to clarity and beauty.

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