Restricting awareness

When not restricted by the body and mind, the soul potentially has a wider awareness, but such a wide awareness is difficult to organise and contain. Awareness of all the potential information in each of the above domains would not be practical. Too many stimuli may, in fact, decrease awareness. Making sense out of disparate pieces of information would be harder without some restrictions. So, to minimise confusion and overload, there are mechanisms that limit the quality and quantity of experience and information accessible to awareness. In other words, potential information passes through several filters before it becomes actual information. This narrowing enables paying attention to details and organisation, which in turn allows gradual development. Awareness can be restricted in the following ways:

 

Limiting potential materials

First of all, materials that are accessible to awareness are limited depending on their source. These limitations can be grouped in three categories:

Limits of perception - potential information about physical reality and the body are restricted by the limitations of the sensory apparatus and nervous system. The 19th century philosopher and psychologist Henri Bergson was not much off the mark when he suggested that ‘perhaps our senses are intended to keep things out, rather than to let them in'. Indeed, they do not register at all many signals (for instance, those on the frequency of infra-red light). Also, some signals are not intense enough, and some are overrun by stronger stimuli.

Limits of the mind - the mind is not only narrower than the brain (there are processes in the brain that never become a part of consciousness), but it imposes its own limitations. The main purpose of the mind is to construct reality out of experiences and available information, which implies selectivity. Also, in time, many pieces of information become inaccessible (because they are blocked or because an associative path is lost).

Limits of the soul - only a part of the soul is related, at any point, to a physical or mental life. We are normally aware of experiences connected just to this part. Furthermore, awareness of the processes in the soul depends on their intensity and their relative position within the energy field. For example, awareness seems to increase with a decrease of density (that allows a greater momentum), which is why becoming aware of something is generally associated with bringing it to the ‘surface'. In other words, the deeper processes are, the harder it is to become aware of them.

 

Limiting awareness itself

Awareness is characterised by selectivity which is demonstrated by the fact that only a few of the myriad of neural events are illuminated, and these few are arranged hierarchically. Eccles writes:

The self-conscious mind has to select. We'd be overloaded by information if at any moment we had to take notice of everything that was poured into all our senses. This is perhaps one of the very important reasons for the operation of the self-conscious mind and its evolution... It gives a selection or a preference from the total operative performance of the neural machinery. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.475)

 

This selection is achieved by amplifying some signals at the expense of others, possibly through the process of positive feedback (see, for example, Harth, 1993).

Awareness is a complex phenomenon, closely related to short and long term memory, which makes the matter even more complicated. Three distinct states (but with fuzzy boundaries between them) can be distinguished in relation to the focus of awareness: being unaware of what is received; being aware only superficially (floating awareness that scans incoming stimuli without ascribing meaning to them); and being fully aware (focused), which enables constructing and memorising the available materials.

Non-awareness - we are not aware of everything we receive. One simple example has already been mentioned. If you are sitting right now, you are most likely oblivious to the sensations that are the result of your body being in contact with the chair until you turn attention to them, yet they are always present. Similarly, you are usually aware of only a few elements that are in your visual field at any time. Filtering or ignoring some potential information is necessary, so that awareness can be freed to focus on what is new, important or interesting. For this selection procedure, the existing constructs (based on previous experiences and other forms of knowledge) are normally used as a template with which the immediate experience is compared. Information congruent with what is expected can be ignored. These corresponding constructs are brought up automatically (on the basis of expectation and recognition). On the level of mind, some potential pieces of information are accessible, but awareness is simply not focused on them. Structured activities such as writing or driving, for example, are usually automatic and ignored by awareness (unless a novel element is introduced). Awareness is, therefore, narrower than both, perception and consciousness. By the same token, certain available processes in the soul may be ignored too (we may not feel them).

Divergent awareness (sometimes called peripheral awareness) - awareness often ‘floats' loosely, which is why we can become aware of unexpected information. Those materials that are insignificant or match what is already structured or expected are filtered, so we are only superficially aware of them (meaning that we do not pay attention, do not focus on them). As above, this comparing and filtering is mostly an automatic process, the parameters, ‘commands' are pre-defined. However, it is important to bear in mind that the template (to take the case of visual perception) does not consist of the exact images of objects or movements  but of the ideas of objects and movements. For example, if we walk down a familiar street we normally ignore most of the information. This is possible not because we have ever seen exactly the same scene before; cars and pedestrians change all the time. Nevertheless, we can ignore most of them because we are familiar with that scene on the basis of an heuristically formed idea of what to expect. Only orientation pointers (necessary to direct an activity such as walking) are briefly in focus, while the rest remain on the periphery.

 

Convergent awareness involves attention and concentration. Attention is an ability to focus on a particular object, while concentration is the ability to maintain awareness on the object of attention. Therefore, attention is essentially a type of intention. An intent directs awareness by creating tension that is resolved by a matching set of information (a corresponding form). Elements that are similar to the pieces of information contained in what is looked for will enter our awareness. For example, if we are trying to find the keys with a yellow key-ring, any small yellow piece will attract our attention. Of course, other factors, besides our intentions, can influence this focusing and directing of awareness. Here are the most important ones:

Intensity: its influence is determined by a variable threshold that depends on a general degree of sensitivity, tension or competing stimuli.

Novelty, unexpectedness (e.g. appearance of an unusual colour, movement, shape, sound, smell etc., or recognition that something familiar is missing): information that does not match expectations and requires re-structuring or expanding of the existing constructs.

Interestingness is another (subjectively determined) attractor. The element involved may not be necessarily novel, as in the case of when something is perceived from a different perspective.

Importance ascribed in advance to a potential piece of information. One familiar situation in which this factor plays a role is so-called ‘cocktail party' phenomenon: you are attending to a conversation at a party, but suddenly become aware that your name is mention somewhere else in what was just a background noise a moment earlier.