Focussing on what's important

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that this article isn't going to be about prioritising your goals or making more plans to take see your elderly relatives. Not that those things aren't important, but what I want to discuss here is cognitive brain function and the way our minds filter reality based on our past experiences.


In 1951, French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty gave a series of lectures critiquing the common-sense theory of language. He believed that regardless of language, the mind understands that a cat is a cat because it has seen a cat before, and it knows that it is not any other animal. Many different languages have different words to describe a cat, but no language can account for the way every individual in the world experiences seeing a cat. We have our own understanding of language - our own language, so to speak.



Meaning is not directly transmitted through things like language, but rather through a filter that we create which acts as the catalyst for all of our actions.


Recent studies from MIT have shown that, similar to Merleau-Ponty's theory of language. Our brain is not acting as a spotlight. Rather, it is in a constant state of filtering out our entire sensory intake to discern what is meaningful or useful to us. To give an example, we can identify a face in a crowd of thousands of people; we can spot a child stepping out onto a road away from its mother whilst we are driving seventy miles an hour. 


A recent podcast conversation between Tim Ferris and American essayist, Mary Karr further demonstrates this theory.


Mary Karr discusses a "fight experiment" she often conducts in her lectures.


She describes a particular instance where she staged a fight between herself and a male colleague, where she asked her colleague to act overly aggressive and tell her to "go fuck herself". Meanwhile, she intentionally acted scared and kept her body language closed off and her head down.


Her students became "hyper-vigilant and filled with adrenaline." Karr then asked the students to recount the incident - each coming back with a slightly different report, especially when describing her actions.


Many students described her as acting bold and courageous, even though she intentionally acted frightened. Others wondered what Karr had done to cause her male colleague to be so angry.


Karr's point is that each different account given is a reflection of the individual writing it. They've filtered what they want to see, rather than the objective proof in front of them. Each student had their own understanding of the event - their own event, so to speak.


This experiment raises the question of whether the mind can see things objectively at all, or whether it can only ever see what it wants to see.


Once we are aware of this mind filter, we notice two things. 

  • Our minds are interpreting a situation based on our past experiences, and no one experience can ever be judged the same by two different people.
  • Our judgements need judging. We need to be careful of the actions we take.


This filtering system is an evolutionary function in our brain that has taught us how to defend ourselves from making the same mistake twice.


But it can also stop you living your life to its full potential. If you allow your mind to filter out what it wants to protect itself, you might never make any progress in your life.


You might have had a bad experience with a partner where your trust was broken, and you were left feeling utterly betrayed, and from now on you're too cautious of falling in love ever to try again.


On the one hand, you'll avoid ever having your feelings hurt, but at the same time, you've robbed yourself of all the joys of love.


I didn't want to use the cliche example of falling in love, but it felt the most universal example of this.


If you are to take anything away from this article, consider your own conception of objectivity and what it might mean for the decisions you make. If it keeps you safe and the wolves from the door, good. Evolution has done its work. But if it's getting in the way of your future and closing doors that you might one day want to open. Consider how you might react to situations in future and be aware of the filters at work in your own mind.


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