Sensory Overload: How Your Brain Triages Information

Posted on August 15, 2012 by


See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no Evil

Photo credit: Mohammad I.M (Creative Commons)

What do you really hear?

The other day I was listening to music in the car and a familiar song came on.  I had heard this song a hundred times before but this time it sounded different.  I could hear each pick movement as it was occurring.  Down…Down…Down-Up…Up-Down-Up…Down.  I could hear as the musician progressed from chord to chord and adjusted the tempo at various moments.  After nine months and 150 hours of practicing guitar I was hearing the song in a completely different way.

The song hadn’t changed but my ability to listen and decode it had.

What do you really see?

When my wife was pregnant with our first child I began to see Dads with babies everywhere.  It seemed like I couldn’t go out of my house without seeing a man with a baby strapped to his chest.  Where had all these new dads come from and when did people start strapping children to themselves?    Of course this experience repeated itself many times as I began to encounter other sleep deprived dads with newborns and now I see families with 2 or more children whenever I am out and about.

My neighbors hadn’t changed but my frame of reference and experiences had.

What do you really feel?

When I renovated my first house I hung new drywall and finished each room of the house.  I tried to read as many articles as I could find and ask people for advice on the best techniques.  Even though I understood the basics I struggled to get a good result.  I quickly discovered that there was an “art” to applying the mud and no matter how many articles I read the only thing that was going to help me progress was practice.  As I reached the final rooms of the house I began to have an enhanced experience.  I knew when the mud was the right consistency by the resistance it exerted on my scraper.  I knew how much material to load on the tool and how much pressure to apply while distributing it by the forces on my wrist.  When I went back to reread the same articles I now saw that they described in detail the nuances that I had “discovered.”

The advice hadn’t gotten any better but my ability to synthesize and apply it had.

To much information, Too little brainpower

We are inundated with information on a daily basis.  The only way that we can function and live normal healthy lives is if our brain censors the majority of incoming data.  What is weird is that we have no way of know what is getting blocked out.  Every day you go out into the world there are vast amounts of information flying by you because you don’t know how to process it.

You can almost imagine large black bars censoring many of the sounds, sights and touches we encounter on a daily basis.  Except that in reality there are no obvious black bars when our reality is being obscured.  We just hear and see and feel whatever our brain deems necessary and the rest gets dumped.

The good news is that the brain seems to be very eager to please and if you expose yourself to new skills, ideas and experiences it will adapt and eventually allow you access to new sights, sounds and sensations.

Have you ever experienced something “new” that in hindsight had always been right in front of you?


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