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September 12, 2007


Pat Parslow

I would argue that the filters we build are a natural evolutionary consequence of living in a dangerous but generally relatively predictable world, and of a need to be able to respond quickly to certain types of stimulus. By slowly 'programming' our brains with pattern matching filters, we build a repertoire of short cuts which can trigger responses on an almost reflexive basis, and without the need for the somewhat slower involvement of the conscious mind. As we come to live in safer environments, and have a reasonable set of survival reflexes 'built' in, we can afford to start questioning things more.
I think that the filters are not necessarily built through habit, although that is certainly a mechanism for it, but through repeated experience, or, indeed, through experience which has sufficient impact to leave an 'imprint'. Enough to form a pattern recognition 'subsystem' in our brains which can be associated with an action to produce a reflexive response.
Whilst I would broadly agree about desensitization, I think there are two types of 'unnoticed'. There are those things to which we become habituated, which we no longer consciously notice - such as wearing clothes. I think that in general we are able to focus our attention on these things, through the ("magic" that is) conscious effort. However, more worryingly, I think there is another category of things which remain unnoticed by us.
The filter mechanisms, built through habituation, help us recognise and quickly respond to stimuli in the environment. They can be formed through direct personal interaction with the environment, but also, I think, through social interaction. In extreme cases this can be akin to 'brain washing', where we can be 're-programmed' to believe things others would find unbelievable, or, indeed, to not believe things others find to be common sense.
I posit that this actually happens to some degree throughout our lives. If we experience something, whether it exists in the real world but goes unnoticed by others, or if it is purely a construct due to random noise in our brains, society (initially family) is fairly quick to let us know that we must have been mistaken. If this is repeated frequently enough, I suggest that we start to filter those things out - they are stimuli which (assuming we suffer no physical harm from them) have no pay-off in terms of the social reality in which we live.
This applies to connections between different fields of study. As people are typically (traditionally) trained (habituated) by the 'education' system to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, and subject areas are kept separate from one another, they are being conditioned to quite literally not see connections between topics.
So I completely agree that we need to be equipping our young learners with tools to break down barriers and visualise different ways of thinking, and the routes to them.

As an aside...
I have often wondered whether the stereo-typical tendency of teenagers to experiment with various levels of mind altering substances (from nicotine and alcohol, sleep deprivation and trance inducing music, up to the harder forms of drugs) might be a self-medicating approach to doing just that - often considered to be attempts to break out of the hum-drum existence they are in, perhaps these are really ways the brain uses to try to forge the new pathways (or break down the old ones) so that the individual can start to 'think' again?

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