The brain is designed to screen out information just as much as it is to take it in. It has to be, there is way too much going on to successfully process it all. One example is how you are able to focus on your conversation in a loud, crowded restaurant. I feel that life in general is much the same way. I notice that I am most effective when I am engaged in the present moment working with the information in front of me.
However, it is necessary to zoom out from time to time and scan the bigger picture for patterns in order to chart a course and determine how closely you are following your anticipated path. In this way, there are levels to focusing and directing your attention. Dr. Jordan Peterson refers to them as levels of resolution, like the way a picture is sharp at one level of focus and fuzzy at another. The present moment is as sharp as it gets, the closest we can ever be to reality. As you zoom out into bigger and bigger levels of time and space, you are not relying on your senses as much, and instead, switch to a cognitive map.
Your cognitive map is constructed of memories, impressions, learned information, intuitive information, and most importantly, imagination. Using this cognitive map or “schema”, we project ourselves into past or future scenarios. Think about it, where do you really go when you are thinking about “the” big picture? There is nowhere to go, you are sitting right there, in the present moment, operating in some imagined world within your head. What is amazing though, is that some people’s imaginary cognitive maps are so accurate, their ideas have an impact that forever changes the world. On the other hand, some people’s maps become so distorted by cynicism, emotional trauma, faulty beliefs, etc., that their imagination works against them, like a stumbling block in every situation.
So how do the great minds do it? I think it all comes back to my original topic, that it’s as much about screening out information as it is about receiving and processing information. It takes the same level of focus to accurately perceive and capture a bigger picture as it does to narrow your focus down to the present moment. What is focus really, isn’t it just not paying attention to a lot of things in order to pay close attention to a few things. If so, when projecting out into the broader picture of your cognitive map, you would need to have a knack at knowing what to ignore and what to pay attention to. This is where pattern identifiers have the upper hand. It could also be why IQ tests are all about identifying patterns.
In order to discern between relevant and irrelevant information, you first need to be looking for something. If you have something in mind that you’re trying to find, you can then go along saying, nope, nope, ah ha, there it is! What did you find? Well, it’s what you anticipated that you might find if the patterns of your cognitive map are correct and keep extending outward into broader and broader levels of resolution. How did you know you found it, it fit your pattern. In this way, the world’s greatest minds are able to build bridges into unknown territory solely by projecting the cognitive map they formed at one level of resolution, onto bigger or smaller levels of resolution and checking for confirmation of the pattern. Also in this way, a negative bias will have you concluding that life is terrible, you’re a failure, and you may as well give up.
Why is this useful? Well, it can be helpful to remember that no amount of knowledge is useful unless accompanied by the ability to screen out what isn’t useful and identify the pattern. An evolving organism such as humans, by nature, cannot know all the facts. No matter how long we practice science, we will always be following the universe as it changes and we will never catch up. Thankfully, it is not necessary to have all the facts. If you can spot a pattern, and anticipate what might happen next, you’ve got all you need.
It also helps to know that if you’re looking for confirmation of your negativity, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for confirmation that life can amazing and you can be healthy, you’ll find that also. So choose wisely. There are so many smart and talented people who suffer from addiction. I think it may have less to do with their ability to read and follow a cognitive map, as it is that their map is flawed and leads back to substance use because the path appears hopeless.
Surrendering to a Higher Power doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it sounds. It can really be as simple as realizing you don’t need to have all the information in life or construct a flawless plan to be successful. You may need some help in order to let go of your old map and start creating a new one. But if you are willing to keep your eyes open for a pattern, choose to look for the positive one, and have the courage to take the next step, life will show you where it’s all going. It might even be better than the picture you had in your head.
Alex Penrod, Recovery Manager