Excerpt: Folding 0.7: Afterimages, Replay, Interference

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2.3.1.1 Afterimages, Replay, Interference

The first thing to point out is the process of observation more generally. When you look, see, or notice something, there’s a very predictable pattern that then occurs.

First, there is your contact with the actual sensory experience. This is very, very brief. Almost immediately, your mind moves to phase two.

In this phase, you are no longer paying attention to the actual sensory experience, but you are instead paying attention to a sort of “afterimage” of the experience. This is what your mind actually collects and takes away from the outside world, and this is what you actually think about, make sense of, and reason about.

What is this afterimage like? It’s composed of felt meaning , quasi-imagery, and often a felt model. (And then there’s phase three, where you might then generate some language, naming the experience, or then you’ll have a verbal thought related to the experience.)

Regarding the parts of the afterimage, the felt meaning might represent what you experienced. If there’s a felt model, one of the icons in the model will be the what that you experienced; and maybe the model will a model of the process that you think generated the experience (for example, what made the noise).

Afterimages are not just for Level 3 phenomena but are a part of all experiences. A good way to get practice at noticing afterimages is through paying attention to bodily sensations, especially proprioception. Where is your foot in space? How do you know? Can you separate the actual proprioceptive sensations for your phenomenological afterimage of the sensations? On and off, you could play with this for a few minutes, until you get bored.

Another way to get a sense of afterimages is generate a short sound or some other sensory experience and then ask how you know it happened. For example, snap your fingers. Ok. How do you know you just snapped your fingers? You remember you did, right?

Unless you wait too long, part of the experience of that memory is the afterimage of you snapping your fingers. And, there’s often a special property of afterimages that you can play with: You can access the afterimage to more fully replay the experience that led to the afterimage. A replay is not available for some experiences and you might lose the replay for the experience if you wait too long before accessing it. Finally, even if a replay isn’t available, the afterimage may still contain some detail that you can inspect.

So, being aware of and using afterimages is one way that you can inspect subtle phenomena, especially phenomena that goes by very fast.

When doing so, there are some caveats to be aware of.

First, it’s good to remember that the afterimage is not a perfect replica of the experience. It is a “tag” that the experience happened, that may contain or evoke some of the structure or phenomenology of the original experience. If you’re using afterimages to investigate experience, you have to make some effort to to separate out what the experience of the afterimage is versus what remains of the original experience.

Second, it’s important to note that afterimages will always have some conceptual contamination. Afterimages are part top down and part bottom up. That is, afterimages are partially composed of what you expect to see. That’s why you can be positive you just saw a bug skitter across the flow but when you look closely it was just some very suggestive dust caught in a draft. The afterimage is what you reflexes an emotion actually react to, and the afterimage is not the same thing as what was actually there. The way to partially get around this is to try to not have preconceptions and to try to take lots of careful observations of the phenomena.

Finally, there’s a subtler point, here. It seems to be the case that you may be able to “take” or “get” an afterimage only if you already have some inkling of what you’re looking for. That is, if you already have some hint of an idea or concept of what’s there. That doesn’t mean you have to have a name for the experience. And, it doesn’t mean that you’ve had to explicitly reflect, before, on some prior occasion, on having those sorts of experiences. I just means that somewhere in your mind there has to be some sort of… familiarity for the experience before you go looking or paying attention in general.

So, how do you get that initial experience, if you can only have the experience if you’ve had the experience? It seems to “bootstrap” slowly, by simply paying attention in the vicinity of what you’re looking for. You brain eventually, faintly discerns a pattern on the edge of experience, and you gain a creeping sense of familiarity that becomes clearer and clearer, until finally you can put your finger on it, haltingly describe it with great difficulty, and maybe finally name it as a thing or break it down into further parts.

In the next few subsections, we’ll give more tips that can help this process go faster. In any case, you’ll already have the capacity for afterimages for many interesting and valuable things, just by gaining tacit familiarity with them of the course of your life. For some of those things, you might immediately think to yourself, “Oh yeah, I recognize that. Maybe I should give it a name.” For other things you’ll have a faint, barely-there sense of something, and it’ll take effort and concentration to bring it into focus without scaring it away by doing the wrong thing with your mind. (We’ll talk about “scaring things away by doing the wrong thing with your mind” in a subsequent section.)

Overall, when an experience is somewhat fast, contained, and almost gone before you look, afterimages are a great tool to investigate and get a clearer sense of it.

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