Information Filtering: the adaptive capacity of the human mind

Each time I’ve read something about “information overload” and how we need better external filters, it’s left me with a vague sense that we are over-looking the obvious.  And it really is obvious, once you stop and think about it:

Human minds are born to filter.

More than that, they are born to build very sophisticated, constantly evolving filters.  You know this intuitively; if you’ve ever taken a walk with a one year old child, they will stop and see every detail – every variation in grasses, or tree leaves; they stop to evaluate every sound, to admire every insect.  You don’t do this; your brain has learned to filter.

There have been a number of studies on infant language development.  A recent study looks at the filtering strategies employed by 18-24 month olds as they work to distinguish and learn individual words from the ambient noise of conversation. A study back in the 1990s looked at how very young children (around age 2) had already learned to filter the normal variations of pronunciations within their native language, but would respond to extremely subtle variations of pronunciation in sounds that were not present in their native language.

Those are some pretty complex filters developing in very young minds.  And our filtering abilities grow and develop throughout our lives; we filter staggering amounts of information every day.  Don’t believe me?  Step outside and turn off your filters.  Try to catch how many ambient sounds, scents and visual details your brain has routinely learned to dismiss because they do not require action – they are background noise, safe, uninteresting.  Thousands of inputs filtered out every second.

You really notice the amount of daily filtering you do if you move to a new environment.  Your brain doesn’t know what sounds or smells it can safely ignore, nor what normal weather patterns look and like, nor which insects it can allow you to simply overlook, what social cues are relevant.  So your senses are bombarded with a much higher level of detail; it can be overwhelming (and exhausting).   But over time your brain builds new filters for the new environment.

To some extent we are starting to see this evolution in our increasingly information saturated 2.0 world.  On first exposure our mental filters are as overwhelmed as they would be if one moved from Duluth to Mumbai.  Over time our filtering ability evolves; we do, after all, have minds capable of the complex  and unceasing inputs of the natural world.  But as we deveolop our media filters, we do have to take care that we are filtering well.**

**e.g.  Simon Bostock discussed an important article, Six Views of Embodied Cognition which, among other things, looks at the cognitive strategies (often short-cuts) we use when time pressured.  If those pressure driven strategies are employed consistently over time, it seems possible they may lead to over-filtering so that it becomes habitual to merely skim the online information stream, instead of selectively reading certain items with the same level of attention one would give to reading a good book.

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