In the course of an average day, our senses are bombarded with literally millions of pieces of input: not just the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of the five primary senses, but also our own internal creations: moods, memories, projections, regrets, etc. It is absolutely impossible to attend to all of this input, so what we do is create filters and lenses which block out much of the input and focus on only a small fraction of it. These filters and lenses allow us to remain sane by creating order out of the input, reducing the number of variables our brains process and allowing them to weave logical and coherent "stories" out of what we're noticing / experiencing / feeling.
Our knowledge about how the brain does this is somewhat rudimentary, but even so more complicated than can be tackled in this week's blog post (for those interested in a detailed, scientific explanation go to:)
Nonetheless, we all have had vast personal experience with the phenomenon of blocking out certain input in order to focus on a desired project, (e.g. on the Metro ignoring the conversations around us so that we can concentrate on the book we're reading), or directing concentration to a very specific task in order to execute it as perfectly as possible (e.g. when we're at bat in a game of softball or deciding whether to hit or fold in a game of blackjack).
This phenomenon - selective perception - allows us to make sense of our experiences by finding commonalities among them. Over time, the information that we've gathered through experience creates a narrative that makes it easier to interpret what's going on around us. For example, if I have a mate who is a chatterbox or a constant complainer, I will over time start to pay less and less attention to the specifics of what he / she is saying to me because I have a pre-existing notion of the likely value of listening. If as a child I was constantly criticized for being messy, I will think of myself as a messy person and will likely pay little attention to being neat and orderly. It's easier to operate in the world with black-and-white thinking, categorizing yourself, other people, and situations in absolute terms, rather than in gray, relative terms.
The danger in this way of perceiving things is the inaccuracy that it engenders, because in fact the world consists of primarily gray people, places and things. I see this phenomenon over and over again in the clients with whom I work. Whether it's a couple who come to me for relationship counseling throwing terms at each other like "You never......" or "you always...," or a client who is meeting with me for career counseling, characterizing him / herself as "a procrastinator," or "lazy," I'm constantly confronted with rigid ideas that people have about themselves and each other.
One of the primary tools that I utilize in getting people to break out of dysfunctional patterns is to enquire about exceptions to the patterns that are causing problems. Those exceptions inevitably exist, but because of selective perception they are not noticed or, if noticed, quickly dismissed. What I've discovered over my decade-and-a-half of personal, interpersonal, and professional counseling is that investigating the exceptions to an unwanted pattern can often uncover the route to changing it. "What was different about that situation" is a powerful question that usually reveals a vital piece of information that was previously unnoticed or overlooked. For example, I might ask someone who says she is always disorganized to think of something she did that required organization, or ask someone who's bored in their job to think of moments that aren't boring.
So, next time you are disturbed by the pattern of your own thoughts (pessimistic, defeatist. self-denigrating?) or behavior (self-destructive, argumentative, aggressive?) start searching for exceptions, for the times when you thought or acted differently. Ask yourself what contributed to the atypical response; was it your mood? your surroundings? something you did or didn't eat or drink? a thought you had or an image that came to mind? something you remembered? Identifying the exceptions to a dominant pattern of thought or behavior can be a powerful first step in creating change.