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Perceptual Response Cycle
Categories: meditation, Yoga

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Pre-sensory motor focus is not something you will see in most anatomy books. The concept is that before you sense (through the sensory organs) there is a decision, usually unconscious, about what you will perceive. Imagine that you and I are walking towards one another on an empty street. Let’s also imagine that one of us has a history of violent abuse, and one of us has not and is also just leaving a tango class. The street is dim and our figures don’t become perceptible until we are quite close, so details like gender, ethnicity, style, and age are unknown… Now imagine- how do we perceive each other differently? Our past experiences, fears, habits and expectations form the basis for pre-sensory motor focus.

Sensory Input– Let’s continue this imagination and say that we cross each other on the street and we make eye contact, both of us nod, one says “hi”, the other “hello”, we come close enough that I can smell your shampoo and you can smell my perfume, I can’t speak for you but I know that there is a slight tension that goes through my body as our eyes meet… I’m shy and my organs actually feel like they tense a bit, my breathing gets shallower and I am acutely aware of a tingling on the back of my neck. I pick up my pace ever so slightly as we continue walking. This is our only exchange, but the sensory input I just registered has gone through all of the sense organs: eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin, as well as the enteric (organ) system which might be called a “gut feeling”. I am not certain, but I’m pretty sure that you have registered my presence on all those levels too- whether or not you were aware of them.

Our perceptual interpretation has a lot to do with what we’re looking for, as in, the pre-sensory motor focus. The individual who has a history of abuse may perceive the “hi”, “hello” greeting very differently depending upon other factors like what they see- does the body type, hair/eye/skin color, stance, weight, gender, age remind them of their abuser? Or how about what they hear, how is the vocal tone or innuendo perceived? The individual who just came from Tango is maybe feeling a bit sexier or playful, they may perceive the other person as a potential dance partner, or attractive. How does this come across to the first person?

And then what..? The Motor Planning stage asks, “what are you going to do about it?” It may be a quick impulse, barely enough time to be a thought- just a signal to the legs, “Run!!!” Or perhaps it’s a response to an impulse that requires further thought, like “Hey, that person looks familiar, isn’t it a friend of that friend? Should I say something?” And then do you turn around or just keep walking?

Motor Response is acting on the plan. You run as fast as you can. You turn around, lift your hand in greeting and inhale to exclaim, “Hey!”

The motor decision, the action, only has to start in order for us to begin to receive Sensory Feedback. I turn, lifting my hand in greeting, open my mouth, “Hey!” And as you turn I realize that your profile is just a bit different than the memory of my acquaintance. You look at me with a question in your eyes and my face gets hot and all the courage I’ve gathered in the last few instances to utter a greeting gets caught in my throat. “Sorry,” my voice is a bit more high-pitched than usual… “I thought you were someone else.”

My Perceptual Interpretation is the story I tell myself about the interaction. Did I perceive you as friendly or irritated by my greeting? And how does that fit into the other stories I have about myself, my relationships and my willingness to speak, or reach out, or to be wrong?

Future Expectations are what I gain from this interaction. The last five minutes could accumulate into a confirmation of the pre-sensory motor focus and the expectations of my perceptions, or perhaps the result of this interaction somehow creates a break in the expectations that I am accustomed to, and causes a pause or reason to re-examine expectations that have somehow become obvious. My future expectations will form the unconscious pre-sensory motor focus, and so the cycle continues.

The perceptual response cycle is formed through a chain reaction of events that are neurons firing information, chemicals releasing, and the body systems , sense organs, emotional reaction and mental process all responding. At every point between these stages is an opportunity for potential pause and reflection. This isn’t always necessary. Definitely in cases where danger is real, we want to be quick as possible. However, if our pre-sensory motor focus is always on the lookout for danger, then any situation is a potential trigger and our perceptual interpretations may be skewed towards an idea that we must constantly protect ourselves.

Obviously, violence is an extreme example. But there are millions of stories we might have about ourselves or the world around us… People don’t like me, I can’t do that, I am injured, I am weak, I am smarter than them, I am better than them, I am stupid, I am unworthy, no one loves me, people are out to get me, I can have anything I want… etc. Stories may feel good or bad to tell, but either way they are still stories and their repetition will eventually become belief and we will perceive what we believe.

The nervous system is the first to respond and the last to ‘know’. The way our nervous system functions is usually beyond our conscious thought patterns… But consider this: Conscious thoughts are part of the nervous system- but try and find their origin; Do your thoughts begin in your head, in response to a physical stimulation, emotional or energetic experience? Are your thoughts stimulated by how your perceive through your organs of perception, and if so, do your perceptions of your exterior environment effect you in a way you might call a ‘gut feeling’, and how does that feeling relate to your mental language? How does your mental language paint a picture of the world around you? Is it possible that you perceive what you expect to perceive? If that’s possible, then is it possible to pause… and reflect on your expectations… and maybe, just maybe, let them go?

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