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Archive for February, 2013

Perceptual Filters and our Maps of the World

Picture yourself looking out at a familiar site, something you can easily imagine. This is something you can recall in your mind’s eye and see with great detail. Get a good look at it in your imagination, see the colors, the landscape, the angles, shapes… Get a clear image of it.

Next, imagine that you are putting on a pair of sunglasses, and looking at the same scene. Notice how it impacts how you see things. For the most part, things will be very similar, though of course darker. Then again, have you ever tried on a pair of sunglasses where the tint was different from the common gray? Perhaps yellow, where it cut the glare very well, though didn’t darken the image. Though without question, that yellow tint would change the ultimate image you see, right?

Moreover, the expression “rose colored glasses” is an apt example as well. If you are wearing such glasses, you see everything literally as more “rosy” than it really is. Everything takes on that pink or rose hue. Again, though you may still see the primary details of the image, they are unquestionably changed. You will see things differently than if you had just removed those rose colored (or yellow, gray, etc.) glasses.

Our challenge is that the glasses are just one example of a perceptual filter, albeit a fairly literal one. There are many things that influence what we perceive and how we perceive it. Our past experiences, things our parents taught us, things we learned in school, on the job, from friends, and lessons we learned from life along the way up to this point, all have contributed to a set of beliefs, values, and attitudes that greatly influence and filter our perceptions. These make up what we call our “Map of the World”. A map is a representation of a more complex system. Just as you might use a roadmap to navigate a complex roads system leading from your house to a museum, our personal maps help us to make sense of and navigate the world around us. Without a Map of the World in our heads, we might have to treat every experience as unique, and we might require a fair amount of time to make sense of it. Life would essentially be continually interrupted as we struggled to find meaning for each new thing we encountered.

An example would be a street map that lacked half the street names. Maybe it also is missing a high percentage of the actual streets you encounter. You might still consult the map if it’s all you’ve got, but suddenly your trip is going to take longer as you try to fill in the blanks, make sense of what you perceive that just isn’t on your map.

Therefore what many of us do is simply ignore what isn’t on our maps, as though it’s not there at all. For some people this works, as their world doesn’t require much detail or interactivity. Though just as with a pair of sunglasses far too dark for a dimly lit room, a limited map can in that way limit what we perceive. In effect, it is limiting what we choose to allow ourselves to perceive.

Other people will choose to fill in those gaps in the map. We may spot a detail in the roadway that for us is significant, a landmark, maybe. We may jot it down on the page so that next time, this now more detailed map can help us navigate more quickly and accurately.

Why do some people instead ignore new information just because it doesn’t match their existing map? Because human beings do not like to be proven wrong, for one reason. Once we have decided that “The color ‘red’ means ‘anger'”, we don’t like having to adjust that belief later on. Rather, we will apply that as a filter to what we perceive going forward. That is, when we encounter the color red, we will look at our meaning for it on our Map of the World and feel anger. Without any further thought, making it quick and efficient to navigate to anger, we can get there from the simple color “red”.

This leads to an important consideration – what about those times when we want to add a landmark, increase the detail on our map, and improve its overall usefulness? It may require a willingness to change what we thought previously. If the map clearly doesn’t match the perceived reality, we may have to accept that our map just wasn’t complete, at the very least, and possibly, was absolutely wrong.

But as we do this, we refine our maps, making them more realistic and useful.

Beware of phrases like, “that’s the way I was taught”, and “that’s what Mother/Father always told me”, or “I’ve always known this to be true”. Such phrases don’t of course always preface a fallacy, or old information that needs to be updated. Though they often do. Just actively participate in your mapmaking, consider your beliefs and be willing to adjust things that just don’t serve you.

Some beliefs, for instance, make sense at one point in our lives, then they outlive their usefulness. That’s the time to update our maps!

The hope is that when you perceive something potentially very significant in your world, something that may impact your relationships with your partner, your children, your boss, and anyone else, that you have actively tested, valid maps with which you can navigate through, and filter, the world around you.

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