You’ve probably read in a science or psychology book that the human brain filters information. It has to. All of our senses are taking in infinite detail at all moments, yes, even in our sleep. According to some scientists, we’re recording it all. But we never know it because our brain has to be very picky about what we pay attention to or else we would crash from sensory overload. Sound crazy? Check it out (see the bibliography).
A lot of how the brain filters information has to do with our safety and security. If anything comes into contact with our senses that our brain perceives to be a threat, our attention is immediately drawn to it. Like the eight-inch earthworm I saw while I was walking today. I really wasn’t looking down or anywhere in particular, that I can recall. Just as I stepped over the earthworm, it wiggled (probably freaking out over my threatening presence) and I spotted it. Nothing draws my attention as effectively as a long, slimy creature on the ground. Why? Because I’m afraid of snakes. I used to have a textbook phobia of them but have progressed to the point where after the initial startle of happening upon one, I can watch calmly as my husband does battle with it to catch and release it somewhere a mile or so down the road. It’s the lucky ones that take a ride in the truck. The uncooperative or slit-eye variety meet with a tragic end.
Though snakes, the poisonous ones at least, can be a threat to all humans, not every person’s filters are set to pick up on a snake on the ground. A few months ago, my husband and I were hiking in the early spring. He was leading the way keeping an eye out for snakes – a gallant service he lovingly provides as he is not really afraid of snakes (though he startles at first sight too). Even though he led, I had my eyes on the leaf-strewn ground anyway, as an extra precaution. Well, you guessed it, he stepped right over a snake without any inkling. The same slithery sucker caught my attention in a big way and I let out one of my famous ultrasonic squeals! That’s not the first time that has happened either – and not just with my husband but with others I’ve hiked with too.
Why do I always see the snakes? My sister says it’s because I’m looking for them. And you know that’s so true – I have my filters programmed to block out rare mosses and lichens and attend to the slithery things in my path.
Now that you see how this works, it’s easy to understand how our preprogrammed information filters can cause us not only to attend to specific things that others don’t see, but they can cause us to interpret information in certain ways. Often those ways don’t correspond to reality.
The essence of this proverb is that often when we think we have things figured out, we don’t. There are two main things getting in the way of our truly understanding matters like we think we do. The first is incomplete information. Even when the situation involves a family member, best friend or roommate, who we think we know so well, there’s always something they are not telling us, which if we knew, would shed a new light on things. The second limiting factor is our own personal filters.
When I was the director of Hope House, I hired a weekend house parent who only worked for a short time – it just didn’t work out for her. In that time, however, she and I became friends. We had a few key things in common – we were both single mothers, she was homeschooling her son and I hoped to homeschool my daughter when she became school age. Although she was from Washington, a state I’ve never even visited, I felt like we shared similar perspectives more so than I did with my fellow southerners. I liked this gal. I visited her home; she visited mine. She babysat for me when I had evening meetings. It seemed like a solid friendship was emerging. Then one day I called to ask if she could watch my daughter but she didn’t answer the phone. I left a message. She didn’t call back. The occasion passed. I called again just to say “hi.” She didn’t answer. I left a message. She didn’t call back. Over a period of about a month, that same scenario played out a couple of times more. She was blowing me off! After some careful thought about what might have gone wrong, I finally decided that I had abused the friendship by asking her one too many times to watch my daughter. She never asked me to babysit, in fact, I didn’t do anything to return her favors to me. I had blown it. I felt bad about it and also felt a little rejected – she didn’t like me enough to hang in there or just tell me she didn’t want to babysit so much.
Then one day about three months later, she called. The first thing out of her mouth was an apology for having been incommunicado for so long. The next thing was the real reason why: she was pregnant. She was 30 years old, never married, had one child out of wedlock and was now pregnant with another – by another man. To have this happen once was humiliating – for it to happen again made her have to face some hard reality about herself and she didn’t like what she saw. And then there was the concern over how she would provide for another child when she was barely making ends meet with the one she had. She had decided to move back to Washington and live near her mother to get some help. This was what was wrong, not that I had asked her one too many times to baby-sit or that she had not liked me enough.
That experience taught me a lot about my own filters and jumping to conclusions based on incomplete information. I think a lot of people are like me in that we take things more personally than we should. In fact, not everything is about me! I have learned to notice when I am filtering information through the “it’s about me” filter, and go through the important mental exercise of concocting several other scenarios that could explain what I’m seeing.
When the neighbor speeds by me on the road near our house without waving, I begin to think of some reasons why she might not have even noticed my presence. Maybe she’s calculating bills in her head and feeling a little overwhelmed by the sum. Maybe she’s late to pick up her kids and is kicking herself for having, once again, piddled around too long before leaving. Maybe she just caught her husband looking at porn! There could be a hundred different reasons why she’s not attending to who’s passing her on the road – even something as simple as maybe the sun is in her eyes!
We need to slow down before we make assumptions, examine our own filters, try to diffuse them and consider other possibilities. We should seek more information, and if that’s not possible, play out some other plausible explanations for what we’re seeing. It could save us the mental angst and humiliation that often accompany incorrect assumptions.
Hold this thought: Maybe there’s another explanation.