Thursday, October 13, 2011

Finding and cleaning up your mental filters

In a discussion group on Facebook, I got to thinking about the ways in which we filter information that we collect through our senses and intuition. As a scientist and psychologist, I've been studying the ways in which the brain takes in and stores information, creating neural networks that underlie our conscious thought processes. Based on the latest information from cognitive neuroscience and biopsychology, a great deal of our processing goes on completely outside of our conscious evaluation and decision making. Our intuition arises from these unconscious processes, which may even extend to the collective unconscious described by Jung.

Similarly, modern physics implies that there are many more dimensions that underlie our physical world and experience than the 4 we usually recognize: three spatial dimensions and time. We have also discovered through quantum mechanics that events happening simultaneously can influence one another at a distance; something that may eventually help explain our experiences of some psychic phenomena, such as clairvoyance. Still, science has a long way to go—and considerable prejudice to overcome—before we reach a point of accepting psychic senses and information.

That does not mean that information we gain from psychic methods is not real, but it does imply that we need to be careful how we interpret and present what we intuit. The thing is, at the unconscious level where we aggregate sensate information and it enters our neural networks, our minds have methods of filtering the information corresponding to our learned predispositions. And this can present a real problem, when we are unaware that those filters even exist.

Our sensory input neurons go through a 6-level process of aggregation even before they leave the region of the brain where raw processing happens. For example, vision starts as signals from individual neurons connected to sensors in the retina of the eye, some of which are light-sensitive and some color-sensitive, and in the optical processing area at the back of the brain we combine these individual impulses into a sensory image construct. This then goes to areas that aggregate the image with sensory inputs from auditory, touch/motor, and other sensory inputs to generate a more robust sensory construct within the networks of neurons in the brain. All of this happens before we're even aware of the image we've seen; it just happens very fast.

Then the sensory impression enters into the hypothalamus and limbic system, where it gets compared against memory impressions to find similarities. Recognizing an image is a complex task, based on what we've learned, and what we've retained of the world around us. This is also where our filters come into play.

Take an image of something we've never seen before. For example, some of the native Mesoamerican peoples who first encountered Cortez and his ships struggled to identify them because they'd never seen such things before. Interpretations might be something like "houses floating on the water with wings," rather than "a ship with sails." That's an example of a filter.

We all have them, and we all react to them, even when we don't realize we're doing so. For one thing, our learning processes are biased by emotional content—sensory impressions, events, and words that have a strong negative emotional content tend to generate a stronger long-term memory impression than do more neutral or positive emotions and events. Fear, anger, rage, hatred, and other stimuli activate the hypothalamus fight-or-flight response, because they often (in our evolution) have signaled a need to deal with a threat. The cascade of neurochemicals and hormones that dial up the sympathetic nervous system give us a rush of adrenaline, and the memory of that rush is attached to the image, event, or words that triggered them as they get stored in long-term memory.

Unfortunately for critical thinking, the more that a long-term memory engram that is emotionally loaded gets activated, the stronger it becomes as a filter for subsequent images, events, or words. Political speech writers and propagandists have long realized this, and use a lot of negative material to overload our filters to the point we actually do not respond to counter-evidence. This is one of the reasons that arguing by way of stating the facts of something expecting a critical-thinking response doesn't work; if you are dealing with someone whose learned memory of the material is heavily emotionally loaded, facts—which have little emotional loading—don't get past the filters. A good example is the global warming discussion, where the facts that unequivocally show the problem is real often encounter skeptical filters that have been emotionally loaded to deny anything is happening at all. Unless the individual climate denier can become aware of the filter blocking his or her ability to think critically about the facts, they will simply reject the facts in favor of what they "know."

Similarly, those of us in the New Age/psychic world have filters we've developed that preferentially take in information that agrees with our feelings, beliefs, and learning. Often these filters do have positive emotional loadings, since many of us want to make the world a better place through our work. But there are also a lot of negative filters we carry along with us culturally that can blind us to more rational, factual information, which can affect our credibility when dealing with people who don't share our beliefs. (Even within the New Age community itself.)

Take, for example, the controversy over the 2012 "end of the world" based on the Maya Calendar and attendant "earth changes" that many are intuiting. Obviously, the end of everything we know and are familiar with is a substantial threat, and generates a good bit of fear. On the positive side of the filters, many of us are expecting a sweeping psychic change toward growth and harmony will come out of these threatening changes; however, all of these filters have us so wrapped up in "mystification" that we're failing to respond to the real, factual things going on we could be working on.

Western culture in general is experiencing a wave of "millenialism," with its attendant expectations about the "end times" that arises out of Christian teachings and the calendar change to a new millennium. Even those of us who style ourselves as pagan are subject to a degree of millennialist filtering, based on our (generally) Christian upbringing and participation in Western culture. Fundamentalism is on the rise in many religions simply because change is happening at such a rapid pace it frightens everyone—and one way to deal with such fear is to fall back on the most literal, safest knowledge one has, which was often learned in childhood. False memories of "the good old days" are prevalent, and help foster a desire to see the current fearful world "destroyed" so we can reduce our tension levels and regain a "golden state."

No one is thinking particularly rationally about all this. Take "earth changes." If widespread disasters were to occur for whatever reason, such as a pole shift, they will disproportionately harm people who live in urban and suburban areas—in other words, in high density. Look at this past year's tornadoes in the United States, where two cities (Tuscaloosa, AL and Joplin, MO) were devastated by powerful storms. The more people there are in an area, the more likely they are to experience the full brunt of a disaster—that is fact. So the idea that "earth changes" will leave behind only those whose spiritual growth is of a high order is a nice delusion; the truth is that such disasters will not make any distinction between "the good people" and "the bad people." Everyone suffers.

Second, the "end times" filter is always a moveable feast. Christians have been freaking themselves out over the end times since Christ's death—most of the apostles who bought into John's Revelation fully expected Christ's return in their lifetimes. Gee, it didn't happen. With each subsequent generation, and in particular around major century and millennium changes in the Christian calendar, such "end times" predictions have gained widespread dispersion. And, yet, it has not happened. We've gone through at least a dozen "end times" predictions in my lifetime—the 2012 business is only the latest. And, yet, it has not happened—and is is not going to happen. We are distracting ourselves from the real problems facing us by freaking ourselves out with unfounded beliefs.

Problem 1) Overpopulation. By mid-century, we will have roughly 9 billion people on the planet. This puts a huge strain on resources, particularly coupled with the trend toward urbanization. Sheer mass of bodies starts to cause local systems to break down, and subjects larger numbers of people to the natural disasters that do occur.

Problem 2) Racial, ethnic, and religious strife and fundamentalism. We must get past the idea that some of us have the "truth," while the rest of us are "unbelievers," or somehow inferior. In-group versus out-group biases served us well when we were hunter-gatherers 50,000 years ago, but are no longer useful or helpful. We are all one single people, a single species sharing a limited planet with no place to migrate to if things go bad. Whatever spiritual growth we may achieve must be directed toward understanding, acceptance, and compassion for all human beings if any of us are to survive.

Problem 3) Environmental degradation. Global climate change is real, it is occurring at a rapid rate, and it will cause real, nasty "earth changes" that may be beyond our abilities to control. Adding heat to the atmosphere and oceans adds fuel that drives weather around the world, and causes established weather patterns to shift, bringing drought to some places, heavier rains and more intense storms to others, and generally wreaking havoc on people's lives. When this has happened in the past, people, animals, and plants have generally either gone extinct or migrated to different environmental niches to survive. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to go this time.

There are other problems facing us, but these are the ones that are "in our faces" at the moment. And, yes, that is my filters activating. I want us to wake up and begin to deal with these problems, rather than try to dismiss or hide from them, or obscure them in petty bullshit that goes nowhere. I do not know for sure that we can do anything before these problems overwhelm us, but as a spiritual, compassionate human being, I believe that we must at least try. But it's a very hard shift for us to pull off.

One of the ways that you can identify your own filters, and work at clearing them up so that you deal with the world as it is requires that you reflect on what you think you know, what emotional load that knowledge has for you, and whether it accords with your own behavior and events around you. This requires that you listen not only to those who agree with you, but also to those who do not. For example, in the case of the Maya Calendar, you can get a smorgasbord of ideas from the New Age psychic community founded in a loose understanding of how the Maya Calendar works, but it is also important to listen to the archaeologists and anthropologists who have actually been working with the Maya themselves. If you do this, you will very quickly find out that the Maya never conceived of the December 21, 2012 date as "the end of the world," instead it simply marks a period ending that would be celebrated for the sake of their Long Count calendar "rolling over." Just as some people celebrate when the odometer on their car rolls over 10,000 miles.

"End of the world" filters prevent us from seeing things we could actually affect and change. If we wish to be healers, and people dedicated to creating a better world, are we not obligated to quit distracting ourselves with conspiracies and fantasies? One of the first things we need to do to heal others is to first heal ourselves! It takes practice to catch yourself in filtering information, but if we want to grow as spiritual beings we are obligated to do the work.

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