Our senses send more information to our brain than we can process.
Every second, our brain receives about 11 million bits of information. But scientists estimate that our conscious minds can only process between 40 and 200 bits per second. Without our brain’s highly refined ability to filter out only the most relevant, we wouldn’t be able to function.
The filtering mechanisms of our brain are designed to protect us. Conditions like ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism are often associated with atypical filtering that can lead to overwhelming sensory pain.
However, attenuated sensory filtering has also been linked to creativity and the ability to experience sometimes intense perceptions of beauty. While we need to limit the attack on our senses, there is also a danger of over-filtering. Today, many people seem to notice little around them, living lives of deep routine, closed off from the world except what comes to them through their digital devices. Your restricted perception restricts not only what you see, but all aspects of your thinking, experience, and life.
Effectively filtering out the irrelevant and noticing what matters is a critical skill for survival and success. While our individual neurophysiology can help or hinder this, we can take advantage of our brain’s neuroplasticity to enhance our sensory filtering abilities. Just because our brains have a default filtering mechanism doesn’t mean we should accept it. As the novelist Marguerite Duras reminds us, “The art of seeing must be learned.”
What information is useful to you?
Changing the programming of our brain requires that we apply both technological and cognitive filters. To do this, we need a criterion to evaluate what should go through our filters and what should be ignored. Considering your purposes for interacting with information is a great starting point and provides valuable guidance. By themselves, however, that doesn’t always provide clarity on what, specifically, deserves your valuable attention.
My old friend Karl-Erik Sveiby observed more than 20 years ago that while some information has value, a large amount of information has negative value when the cost of time and effort to consume a piece of information is greater than what it would cost. that gives you This is especially true if it’s misleading, inaccurate, or outright false, which is (sadly) common these days. We need to be able to assess whether any given information is of positive or negative value to us, based on our unique circumstances and intentions.
Information serves us well if it helps us better understand the world, make better decisions, and live fuller lives, even in the smallest ways. Information doesn’t serve us well if it misleads us, reinforces our biases, makes us unhappy, or simply wastes our time and attention by being irrelevant to our intentions.
We must also be aware of the impact of information on our mood and emotions. Many studies have shown a correlation between depression and excessive use of social networks. The word “‘displacement of doom,“ to describe compulsively after disturbing news, was first used in 2018. Two years later, the rise of the coronavirus made it an accurate description of how we all behave, earning it the “word of the year” award.“
The reality is that almost all reported news is negative, and most ‘good news’ initiatives have failed miserably. However, we can make an effort to limit the consumption of news that distresses you and resort to what we find encouraging or inspiring. Be sure to notice the influence on your mood as you consume different types of news. As much as you can, tend toward what uplifts you and move away from what negatively impacts you.
When looking to identify whether information is serving you well, the most important consideration is whether it improves your mental models. It is natural and helpful to identify how the information fits within your current thinking, belief systems, and existing knowledge.
But this may not be the only filter your brain employs.
You should also look for the most interesting evidence that might show that what you believe might, in fact, not be exactly true. It’s tempting to continue consuming information that validates your way of thinking, but if this is your only filter, you run a higher risk of misinformation.
So how is that balance determined? It all starts with the intention.
Your knowledge frameworks are the basis of your mental models, thinking, and decisions. You should evaluate any new information in relation to your frames. Do they fit inside it and how? Does it refine your thinking? Provide new evidence to consider?
If the answer to at least a of those questions is ‘yes’, then the information warrants further consideration. If you answer no to everybody of those questions, then it’s probably worth examining with a skeptical eye.