Part 5: Mental Filters & Normalcy Bias
How we take in, process, and output sensory data to create our cognitive maps of "Reality"
You may have heard the term “Normalcy Bias” but what does it mean and how does it work? That’s the focus of this article.
Human beings are subjective beings. Due to limitations in our ability to process all the available sensory data (see, hear, feel data), we all have our own “Book of Shoulds” or cognitive maps. We see the world according to what’s important to us. We see things through our unique mental filters including:
Our Values and Beliefs
Our Memories and Experiences
Our Survival Needs
Out of seven billion people in the world – no two of us has exactly the same filters. For example, we may share a value such as spirituality… but your cognitive map of what spirituality means is not likely to match mine completely. In fact, there may be major differences even though we both value the concept and practice of spirituality.
So there are seven billion unique maps of reality out there. This is important to understand whether we are trying to motivate ourselves or someone else. Take a look at the video below to learn how our subconscious mind sorts, selects, and processes all that data.
Subconscious Processing with our “Book of Shoulds”
We have several primary Mental Filters
My Sense-of-Self or Identity – How I see myself… what I think of myself… how I feel about myself.
My Values – Things that are most important to me…these are usually just beneath the surface of our awareness if we have never taken the time to sort them out, but they are very powerful motivators of our choices and our behaviors.
My Strongly-Held Beliefs – Right or wrong…good or bad…helpful or limiting…these are the beliefs we hold about ourselves, other people, life, and the world in general. They are keys to how thought creates reality.
My Memories and Experiences – Every significant emotional event… pleasant or unpleasant is stored on the hard-drive of our subconscious mind.
My Programs – Over 90% of our actions and reactions in a given day are carried out automatically by neural networks in our brain.
My Survival Needs – Of all the brain processes survival is given the highest priority… so anything related to our survival goes to the head of the line for processing by the brain.
The Power of Belief
Beliefs are perhaps the most influential filters of them all. A strongly-held belief creates a strong emotional state. My current belief and resulting emotional state tell my doorman “what’s important to me”. We have:
Beliefs about our identity
Beliefs about our values
Beliefs about our beliefs
Beliefs about our experiences
Beliefs about our programs
Beliefs about our ability to survive.
Example of a Codependent “Love Map”
If someone has codependency then their doorman (RAS) is programmed to screen for data that will support their codependent values… codependent beliefs… codependent memories and experiences… codependent programs… and codependent survival skills. Codependent thought creates reality by attracting the right people who know how to dance the dance.
Their codependent mental filters may look like this:
Identity – I’m not good enough, I’m less important than others
Values – doing for others, self-sacrifice, making a good impression, staying busy
Beliefs – I’m not good enough, others are more important than I am, I must always please others, if I say no you will go away and not come back.
Memories – abandonment experiences, memories of abuse, shaming experiences
Programs – care-taking, rescuing, controlling, fixing others, etc
Survival Skills– approval seeking, don’t feel, don’t talk, don’t trust, etc.
Let’s say that this person has somehow ended her most recent codependent relationship. She is currently looking for a new partner.
She walks into a room full of 50 available men… Only one of them is alcoholic. The other 49 are all very healthy. Who do you think she ends up with? That’s right – because thought creates reality she soon finds herself wrapped up with another alcoholic partner. She asks herself… “How does this keep happening to me… Do I have a stamp on my forehead, or what!?”
No, she doesn’t have a stamp on her forehead – she has radar at the base of her skull called the reticular activating system (RAS)… and all her filters are set for codependency. It can be no other way because that’s how her “map of the world”, her neural network for relationships or “Love Map” is configured.
When she walked into the room her doorman began sifting through 2 million bits of data per second – allowing in only that data which fits her codependent neural network. Consciously she had no intention of coming anywhere close to another problem-person… Consciously she is looking for Mr. Right and the happily-ever-after scenario.
It just so happens that a person with a codependent map is extremely compatible with someone who has a map for alcoholism or other similar dysfunction… So, his mental filters draw him to her just as she is drawn to him. Her “Love Map” subconsciously synchronizes with his and they dance the only dance they know… Until someone has a wake-up call and begins to change their tune.
Whether it is codependency, addiction, chronic depression, or anxiety and fears – Our brain filters data in ways that help us create self-fulfilling prophecies and self-reinforcing cycles. The thing to do is understand how our mental filters creates our reality and develop a way of thinking, or filtering data, that helps us create the life we want!
Changing Mental Filters
The good news is we can change our mental filters and develop the neural circuitry for authentic intimacy. It’s simple, all we have to do is change our whole life! Seriously though, it will take more than a few well placed affirmations to rewire and recondition our brain and nervous system.
We can join a 12-step recovery group, or a community support group, find a good therapist or therapy group, join a Bible Study group at church, go back to school, or develop a new lifestyle.
Examples of Mental Filters for Authentic Intimacy:
Identity – I’m no better and no worse than others, I like my True Self, I am a child of God
Values – Spirituality, helping others, good self-care, being authentic with others, sharing who I really am with the world
Beliefs – I’m worthwhile, I can be real with others others, it’s okay to set healthy boundaries
Memories – Recovery experiences, memories of triumph, celebrations
Programs – Self-care, service work, acceptance, letting go, etc
Survival Skills– Assertiveness, share how I feel, hang out with encouraging people, trust but verify, etc
Mental Filters Therapy Card
Below is a therapy card I use with clients. Referring to it when we feel triggered can ground us in the present moment and activate growth-mode. It is also a fillable PDF so they can keep it on their phone and save it with a new name each time they use it:
On the back of the card is a format for focusing on and targeting one limiting mental filter for change. When we don’t like the inner state and we notice it is because of a limiting core belief about self, the world, or others we can make a conscious effort to focus on challenging that mental filter.