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The aging gorilla in the room: Exploring the limits of our perception

As we get older we tend to lose a capacity for exploration of the world. We seek less novelty, and rely on what we already know and have experienced in the past. Consequently the mental circuits involved in attention and motivation can become weakened. The world we perceive shrinks to incorporate only the features that are relevant to our existing knowledge. This means we can miss out on opportunities and fail to notice the richness that is hiding in plain sight. To continue to explore the world we have to train our eyes to see, to dwell less, and fixate more. Then might we notice the 500 pound gorilla in the room!



In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“With age, the capacity to balance exploration and exploitation is weakened – we become less flexible. Yet flexibility is of great benefit in preserving a capacity to deal effectively with the demands of the world, and to remain in control, fulfilled, and in pursuit of higher goals."


Stop dwelling, start roving...


Exploration. The word evokes excitement, the discovery of new things. Adventure. Curiosity.


The Latin root: explorare, connotes searching out (of information, meaning).


Much of the language we use draws on visual metaphors. Seeing is such a dominant facet in our worldview.


We romanticise the Explorer in the popular imagination. The Mountaineer, the Deep-Sea Diver, The First to Reach the South Pole. Idols, pioneers, those to whom we may secretly aspire but will never actually become ourselves.


It is easy to fall into a trap seeing life progress down a path of diminishing returns, with youthful exuberance giving way to limitations of middle and old age! As infants and children, we have a surfeit of capacity for exploration. This is how we learn, form mental models of the world and determine the path our lives will take.


Indeed, we develop mental circuitry that seeks to optimise strategies for both exploring and exploiting the inhabited world. The flexible balance between these modes of operating is important to effect learning and progress.


At some point, as the circuitry becomes consolidated, age and experience can lean us towards a bias for exploitation over exploration. We rely on the knowledge we have built over time, increasingly favouring what we know over new ideas or approaches. If it works why change it, eh?


There is evidence that as we age, the circuits which govern the balance between exploration and exploitation degrade. Connectivity across brain regions and networks involved in flexible focus of attention become less strong, more diffuse. In exploitation mode, less novel information is sought from the world. Older people, as a rule, will fixate more on elements that are relevant to what they have experienced before.


No matter our age, we can ask ourselves to what degree do we already do this? Do we abandon exploration in favour of what we ‘know to be true’ (I.e., what we have experienced before). Or do we remain youthfully exuberant and enthusiastic: seeking out novelty, trying new things, broadening the scope of our attention?


The central conceit of CognitvExplorer rests on emphasising an exploratory capacity as a basis to grow and progress. This helps us remain stimulated, motivated and inspired. An Adventure Mindset seeks out challenge as the antidote to stagnation. Resilience to stress is built, along with expanded flexibility to manage available resources when dealing with situational demands encountered.


The circuitry alluded to earlier, and which has bearing on physiological arousal, is the Locus Coeruleus-Norepinephrine (LC-NE) system. Involved in the stress response, this impacts on how the brain prioritises resources required by higher centres involved in setting goals and pursuing meaningful aspirations. The Norepinephrine component is the neuromodulator that governs the ‘fight’ response. It supplies the energy and impetus to confront life back on as even a footing as might be achieved.


With age, the capacity to balance exploration and exploitation is weakened – we become less flexible. Yet flexibility is of great benefit in preserving a capacity to deal effectively with the demands of the world, and to remain in control, fulfilled, and in pursuit of higher goals.


Is this inevitable? No, it is not. it is too easy sometimes to become entombed in the environment we find ourselves in. We begin to pay attention to what we are used to. This can manifest literally in terms of the amount of time we fixate on objects in our surroundings. Research has demonstrated longer dwell times on objects in older people (i.e. the eyes stay in the same place). One might interpret that the perceived world shrinks to fewer object and features (and therefore fewer opportunities afforded by NOT looking elsewhere).


Given the importance of vision (metaphorically and literally in how we navigate the world), as we age, our eyes will remain fixed upon objects in the world for longer periods of time. We look around less. We don’t explore our environment visually (enough).


A famous experiment involving a basketball game and an unexpected gorilla, highlights how we only see what we expect to see. We miss huge amounts of what is out there. And it can be very surprising to occasionally have it revealed what was missed. This can translate into missed opportunities in life because again we approach it with tunnel vision. [As an aside, whilst the gorilla experiment has become world famous, I can attest to its power to reveal counterintuitive aspects of our perception. I was there when it was revealed to the world’s pre-eminent vision scientists at a conference in Toronto over 20 years ago. It provoked amazement and disbelief to those deemed experts in this field of visual awareness...!]


There is a practical lesson from this. We can regain more control over what we do see. By looking more! We can attempt to recognise when we have become lost in a narrowed view of the things we are surrounded by. We can disengage our fixation and simply look around. Let the eyes occasionally rove about. Pay attention to other features in the environment. Notice things hitherto ignored! It really doesn’t take much effort. And the beauty of this is that it can stimulate the LC-NE to release norepinephrine in a tonic manner which pertains to an exploratory mode of viewing (as opposed to phasic release associated with exploitative mode). This means there is energy released to facilitate this. With repeated practice we can seek to stimulate the relevant circuitry and offset ‘inevitable’ decline.


If we take this further into the real world, we can of course seek out more stimulating natural, wild environments that innately facilitate exploratory modes of being. Adventures do this without trying! There is often so much to look at in a wild landscape that our eyes, brains, and circuitry are overwhelmed. We get out of our heads, roving the world visually and physically. We will find new experiences, new opportunities to exploit. We will find new resources: out there and within ourselves. This can be a basis for increased resilience, as well as creativity, and motivation!


Using our dominant visual sense, we can begin to dwell less on objects that enslave our attention. In turn we also dwell less on the content within our heads that otherwise restrict a capacity to see beyond previously encountered experiences.


Suddenly the world can become (even) more interesting than it was before, revealing unseen connections, and possible opportunities to thrive upon.


Go on, exploit your visual capacity to explore more!


Spreng, R.N. and Turner, G. R. (2021). From exploration to exploitation: a shifting mental mode in late life development. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25, 12, 1058-1071 .

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