See Things as They Are with Mindfulness

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” ― John Lubbock


There are two ways that we can process sensory information; top-down or bottom-up. The idea of top-down perception is that perception is an active process involving selection, inference and interpretation. In other words what we are thinking or expecting effects how we experience the world. On the other hand the idea of bottom-up perception is that perception is a simple interpretation of the exact stimuli that are present in front of us. In other words we build our world view from the stimuli present.


Top-down processing, sometimes known as motivated perception, results in seeing what we expect to see or what we’ve been trained to see. Hence, our perception is colored by what we’ve experienced in the past and what we expect to see in the current situation. This can produce something that psychologists term a perceptual set. It is “a perceptual bias or predisposition or readiness to perceive particular features of a stimulus“. – Gordon Allport


Perceptual set works in two ways where the individual focuses attention on particular aspects of the sensory data based upon his/her expectations and where the individual has learned how to classify, understand and name selected data and what inferences to draw from it. So, what we perceive is not necessarily exactly what is there. Rather it’s what we want it to be. So, if you’re expecting to see a friend approaching you may initially perceive a stranger to be your friend.


Mindfulness practice has been shown to make the brain more efficient in sensory and perceptual processing (see In addition, mindfulness practice is devoted to present moment awareness; seeing things just as they are. So, mindfulness practice may be seen as practicing bottom-up perceptual processing. It also schools the individual in non-judgmental awareness which is the antithesis of top-down processing. So, it would be expected that mindfulness would increase the likelihood of bottom-up processing and reduce the likelihood of top-down processing.


In today’s Research News article “Be open: Mindfulness predicts reduced motivated perception”

Adair and colleagues investigate this notion by correlating the level of mindfulness of the individual with their tendency for top-down processing. They found that the higher the level of mindfulness the more likely that the individual will perceive bottom-up and the less likely that they will use top-down processing.


Hence, mindfulness does what it is purported to do, helping us to see things as they are and not what our minds are telling us that they should be. In a previous post (LINK TO Free Your Mind with Mindfulness – with RN Kuo) we discussed the fact that meditation tends to free thought processes from prior training and experiences. Today’s Research News suggests that mindfulness also frees our perceptual processes. This suggests that mindfulness is liberating and puts us in closer contact with what is; experiencing the world more accurately and thinking more clearly about what is.


So practice mindfulness and see things as they are.


“In this treacherous world

Nothing is the truth nor a lie.

Everything depends on the color

Of the crystal through which one sees it”

― Pedro Calderón de la Barca


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

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