Thinking Traps VII: Mental Filter

Figure, Ground and Frame

Our sensory organs are relentlessly bombarded with information. A newborn baby does not know what to look at, what to listen out for. Their world must be chaotic and disorienting. But over time they learn what demands their attention – they see patterns and then seek out these patterns. And the rest gets filtered out.

The growing mind is like an artist. It decides what is the Figure, the focus of our attention, the central object in our artwork. Things that are figures meet our current motivational goals: They are threats and rewards. In a busy playground a smiling face and an angry face become the figures. Loving parents, scolding teachers, delicious lollies and barking dogs are all likely candidates for figures. Everything else is filtered out and becomes the Ground, or background. Like mountains or clouds or foliage in an artwork, this information doesn’t demand our attention.

The growing mind is like an art gallery director. It organises our sensory pictures into Frames. The frames are labelled according to common recurring themes. “Me Failing” might be one label. “The World is Dangerous” might be another. This process is Schema development.

By the time we are an adult, the world we experience is far from objective. It is like a gallery which has been organised according to themes from childhood and younger years. The gallery is filled with art that focusses on figures that were important to us as youth. New art that comes in is quickly organised according to the old labels. This stable organisation of experience helps us to quickly understand ourselves and others. Helps us get stuff done. But sometimes might not be helpful at all.

Magnification and Minimisation

When we have been hurt or abused or traumatised in our younger years the way we interpret current events, our new art, will reflect this. Certain figures become grotesquely magnified and certain images, that don’t fit our themes, get minimised into the background. This is the process of mental filtering – fitting current experiences into our pre-existing frames. Examples of this might be:

  • Adults who were bullied as a child are quicker to interpret jokes as insults
  • Someone sexually abused as a child might be more likely to interpret neutral interactions in a sexualised or abusive way
  • A person with neglectful parents is more likely to see evidence of uncaring loved ones today
  • The child who lived in poverty sees constant signs that financial ruin is around the corner

Attention is all

Once you understand the overwhelming influence of past experiences filtering current attention, many problems that seem to be based in the physical world start to take a new light. Like a discerning art lover, you can learn to focus in on aspects of reality that have been pushed to the background. For example, it might feel like no one cares, until you examine the evidence and start to see clues that some people have cared all along. It might seem that you are unattractive, until you recall times when people found you appealing.

Once you get good at this you can Reframe the art gallery. The “Me as Victim” room, becomes “Me as Survivor”. The “You can’t Trust Anyone” room, becomes “Some People are Trustworthy and Some aren’t”. The names of the new rooms aren’t as simple and catchy. This is because the old frames were always childish oversimplifications of reality. Reframing adds nuance and richer detail to our lived reality. Making you smarter, but also feeling better and less stuck in the same old dreary themes.

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