You see what you’re looking for.

Recently I was running through the house in an insane frenzy, looking for my wallet. I searched all of the usual places. On the coffee table, in the kitchen, family room, dining room and even the bathroom!  The hunt was furious and intense. Eventually I found it in on my bedroom dresser. Exhaling a sigh of relief, I felt my pants pockets and realized that I was missing my car keys as well. “Oh I just saw those.” I thought. “Where did I see them?” I asked myself.  Strangely, I could actually picture the image of my keys sitting somewhere in my house yet I couldn’t recall where they were. The fact is that their location didn’t register with me because I saw them while I was looking for something else.  In other words, I’d told my brain that I was looking for my wallet so it didn’t alert me when I saw the keys. Although I could remember seeing the keys, their image was just more data to be filtered.

Most people that I’ve spoken to about this can relate in some way. If we’re not looking for it, it’s rare that we’ll notice it. (Ask your spouse a question during their favorite television show and they may not recall the conversation later.) While wallet hunting, I had made at least two choices. I had decided that my primary focus was going to be identifying the location of my wallet; and to do this I had decided that I would have to analyze and filter images until the wallet was found.

We set our brains to find the answer that we’re looking for. People do this often. This goes well beyond searching for objects and includes the development of our very personalities.

Have you ever known someone who can find the problem in any situation? Someone who has an innate ability to get irritated no matter what? Are you consistently harder on a certain colleague than on another? Why? It’s likely that you’re setting your brain up to look for either a positive or negative outcome depending upon how you feel about a person or situation. This phenomenon is known to psychologists as “Cognitive after image”.  It’s like seeing the residual effect of a camera flash when you’re picture has been taken. Even if you look away you can still see the image. In this case, our brains are trained to ask the same sorts of questions. Once we start a pattern of thought, it’s much easier for our brains to continue working within that pattern than to interrupt it and start fresh. Chances are, once you’ve made up your mind about someone, outside of extreme circumstances, you’ll likely continue to hold the same opinion of them. That’s just how our DNA is programmed. .  Human beings are natural detectives whether we know it or not. We’re always looking for evidence to support our belief systems. Our brains never stop working on this and endlessly generate questions to be answered.  “Why is he always so disorganized?” creates a much different response both internally and externally than “How can we help him to become more organized?” In both cases, a colleague’s disorganization is considered. It’s not ignored nor excused yet only one question is solution oriented.  Consequently, both negative and positive thinking patterns are set deeper and deeper as we program ourselves to think a certain way.  Essentially this means that for the most part, we choose to be either positive or negative based upon what our choices have been in the past. In other words…positive or negative patterns have momentum, we see what we tell ourselves to look for.

How can we develop habits that help us to change our thinking patterns? Next week I’ll examine some ideas about why we should care if we have positive thinking patterns and some strategies that can help.





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