Filtering and Clumping

Nearly everyone thinks they are open minded. Our brains have different ideas. They are designed to filter and clump.

We filter out information that seems irrelevant; that is a good thing since we couldn’t possibly pay attention to everything we hear or see. We’d be overwhelmed.

Our filtering mechanism works just as well with pesky little bits of information that might cause us cognitive dissonance — psychobabble for “it contradicts something we want to believe.”  When we face an uncomfortable truth, we just make up a comforting lie and everything is fine. The psychobabble for “comforting lie” is “defense mechanism.”

Clumping is how our brains organize experience. Keeping everything we see or hear in its own category would drive us crazy. So, we create boxes in our brain to sort stuff into. Those boxes tell us how important or unimportant something is and  allows us to ignore stuff that doesn’t fit with our world.

I hear someone express a view that differs from mine but it has an uncomfortable ring of reason to it.  No problem. I just stick that person in a box. “Oh, he’s just another one of those ____ . (fill in the blank — liberals, conservatives, religious types, trouble makers, idealists, pessimists, e.t.c.)”

Clumping hides the details about that person or experience so we don’t have to take them or it seriously.

When we think scientifically, we do as little filtering as possible. In science, we don’t filter until something is an accepted theory or paradigm and then we are allowed to be suspicious of evidence that contradicts that theory or paradigm. Scientists are also supposed to avoid clumping until they gather enough information to make better clumps.

What does this have to do with anxiety?

Clumping and filtering are useful mechanisms for managing the overwhelming amount of information we all have to deal with. They are also a way to avoid the anxiety of not knowing. They eliminate uncertainty.

Less than Helpful advice

Next time you find yourself hearing or seeing something that does not fit with your way of thinking, try NOT resolving the problem — live with the uncertainty. The more uncertainty you can tolerate — the more interesting life is.

About almondhead

I am a mental health counselor in private practice. One of the focuses of my practice is helping people with fear, anxiety and their ugly stepsister, depression. I became a counselor after a long career in the technology world, so naturally, I think of the brain as an engineering problem. It can help to understand something about how the brain works. I decided to start this blog as a way to help other people learn about fear, anxiety and relationship. (All our problems are really about relationships.) You can also find me at:
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