On welcoming inputs

Last night I thought about why I don’t feel entertained by novels and movies anymore, and have trouble listening to the news and sometimes even to everyday conversations. I guess there are many factors at play, and different combinations for each situation; still, there is a leitmotiv in my perception that connects them. I apologise for the somewhat vague title, but this is the best fit I could find.

I have realised at a way earlier point in life that I receive information from the outside world in form of a mix of events that can be explained with laws of nature (in the broadest sense) and the opinions about these events. This seeems so obvious that it’s odd to mention it at all. What I recently realised is that I used to give both of these categories the same attention, the same right to be heard; and that I was listening to any input with full focus, genuine intention to understand it well. Not surprisingly I was good at school and I was regarded as a good listener, but I regularly and increasingly got overwhelmed.

The solution that most have suggested to me is “well, focus on some specific topic, filter the inputs the you get, there will always be too many situations that would need your help anyway, think about yourself first”. I understand , but I manage only to half-heartedly agree with that. I recognise my finite resources and I’m working on acknowledging my own needs, but I have no usable logic for picking up a topic. I guess it has to do with my intention to work on a given issue that I met directly, not on what someone managed to convince me to. I would feel horribly guilty to have followed a good marketing feat and have disregarded a more urgent issue just because it was not as brilliantly presented. I think of many examples of great storytelling that made a legitimately good work in raising attention on some obscure yet important topics, but I have the uneasy thought that there is much more in the shadows that can’t sell itself as effectively, and it would be inhumane to expect it to.

Connected to that, I got the increasingly clear perception of that “listen to me, disregard the others, I’ll make you change how you think or confirm your views” in works of fiction. I started to read books in a different way. Until recently, I was reading to discover new topics and the views of the authors, and use them to build my inner world, changing them as little as possible. What happens now when I pick a novel is that my brain defiantly grabs a notepad and takes notes about what views the authors want to bring forward, tries to find out inconsistencies, reasons to stop reading. Same happens, with more success for the brain, when I watch a movie. I seem not to be able to get into suspension of disbelief, and I see the movie as if I were on the set: I can almost hear the director telling what he/she wants to see the actors doing (which brings its own pleasure, as a behind-the-scenes experience). I can only watch videos and read text where the self-irony or self-observation is so blatant that I’m not expected to approve the narrative or have empathy of any sort. The focus moves to the acting ability, the photography, the use of narrative devices for fun. I can watch the Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the IT Crowd over and over, and I am very wary in watching anything new, even when I get suggestions from friends.

I think there is a lot behind this change in my perception and I’m trying to understand it better. I would be curious if anyone has similar experiences or has hints for further exploration on the topic.

On miscommunication: filtering inputs

Today I have been thinking about how communication can be inefficient or broken. There are times when I feel misunderstood by people, even when we speak the same language and we already spent plenty of time together. I realised how I feel estranged, as if instead we had no common language, and that all that time together didn’t count.

How can this happen?

My current hypothesis is that there is a form of filtering on the receiving end, that is dropping a lot of input, because it comes in forms it doesn’t understand. For example a baby is crying: as it can’t speak yet, I have no information about what is making the baby uncomfortable – but it doesn’t mean that the crying has no reason at all, and I can ignore it. Or a friend keeps mentioning a book, or a particular event, that doesn’t say anything to me – it doesn’t mean it means anything at all: it means a lot to them!

Most people live in an environment that bombards everyone with an insane amount of input -most of which irrelevant- so the filtering is actually a great protection for the mind. I would only warn not to leave it on all the time, especially with loved ones.

In some cases, there is no active filtering of information, but rather the listening on an inefficient channel: for example, when a person doesn’t know a language well enough, they will speak very little and very simply. I could derive that that’s just how they are internally. But if I switch my attention to body language, or any other channel that the person is comfortable with, I will probably get closer to the actual thoughts and inner complexity of that person. I notice that it’s also how I interact with animals, observing, trying to parse the silent input, to find the language that expresses their internal world.

Icelandic friends, by Alessandra Barilla (Flickr)

I am trying to become aware of these filters of mine, by asking myself: “Is there really nothing more than this input? Can I increase the amount of input that I can understand? What are the inputs I am collecting, but not considering?” Sometimes these questions are painful, because they show me my limitations, and remind me of the situations where I was not able to listen and understand. Nonetheless, I feel the obligation to explore my limitations, because I can’t forgive myself if I said “I don’t understand” and I meant “I don’t care”.

That’s all for now… as usual, let me know your ideas in the comments!