Recently my two girls have started to play a game on car trips called yellow car. It’s a pretty simple game, all it requires is for you to keep your eyes peeled for yellow cars and upon sighting one yell “yellow car” before anyone else (often followed by a lengthy discussion as to whether a digger counts as a car or whether that particular shade actually qualifies as yellow). Inevitably I been drawn into playing the game as well. If you’ve never played this game you have no idea how many yellow cars are on the road until you start.
There are of course reasons for this which many of you will be familiar with. It is not that the yellow cars don’t exist before you start playing the game – it’s just that you didn’t really notice them. At a neurological level what’s happening is this – we are inundated by all sorts of sensory data from the world around us. It is up to a little structure in the brain called the reticular activation system (RAS) to sort through all the information and decide what is relevant and what is not. Think of the RAS as a little man sorting through a bunch of paperwork and deciding what to deliver up to your conscious awareness and what gets filed in the trash. Since I started playing yellow car yellow cars are suddenly very relevant and as a result I’m noticing them all the time.
In other words what’s happening is I’ve set up filters on my experience. Now this particular instance I’m doing that consciously but there are of course many unconscious filters we have set up – which means we are constantly sorting through our experience and paying more attention to particular things.
So how do we know what is sought for? Sometimes, like in the case of this game, we make a conscious decision to go looking for certain things in our experience. Oftentimes though, our unconscious mind has already decided what to sort for on the basis of previous life events. What we end up sorting for, what we choose to pay attention to, can be a defining factor in how we experience our quality of life. Are we sorting the things that make us feel good and are useful to us or are we sorting the things that make us feel bad and limiting us?
What we sort for, creates our reality. Therefore there can be helpful ways to sort and unhelpful ways to sort. For example at one stage in my life was planning on becoming a police officer. One of the reasons I went off the idea was noticing something I’d seen happen to a couple of people I knew in that job. Spending much of their time dealing with some fairly unpleasant individuals, they had started to sort for the dark side of human nature. Becoming convinced that people were basically deceitful, violent and not to be trusted. I know that’s not the case of everybody that works in such roles, but it was a filter I wasn’t too keen to set up for myself. And there are of course other unhelpful “sortings”that some of us will experience day to day. Oftentimes I’ll have clients who come in complaining of low self-esteem. Inevitably as they go through the day they are sorting for all the things that will tell them that they are no good, incompetent, or a bad person. Not a very helpful sorting criteria!
One very recent study looking at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers in Afghanistan has come up with an interesting finding. It seems that the most reliable predictor of which soldiers experienced PTSD was whether they had had exposure to a traumatic event in childhood. This may suggest that if we experience early trauma of some sort that we begin to sort for other traumatic events, pay more attention to them and thus be more affected by them. This would explain why the NLP trauma cure process can have such a profound impact on people. By unhooking the impact of that early trauma, it starts to change what the person sorts for in their current experience. Similarly the NLP timeline process can allow clients to reevaluate the meaning of childhood experiences allowing them to re-filter everything that comes after in a more positive light.
So obviously we want to focus on sorting for things that are more helpful and will aid us in achieving our goals and creating happiness. When are learning a new skill or trying something for the first time it is not very useful to sort for “can I do this yet”. More useful is to start to sort for signs of improvement. How am I doing this better than how I was doing it yesterday? Suddenly instead of feeling bad because you can’t (completely) do it, you’re feeling good because you’re noticing the improvement. When faced with a change in circumstances it is useful to ask yourself whether you are sorting threat or opportunity. The answer that question will determine how you start to respond to the change.
This is also what often happens in relationships. When the happy couple starts out they are sorting for what’s fantastic about the other person. By the time they come to a relationship counsellor they have started to sort for what’s as irritating as hell about the other person and need to be reminded to sort for awesome again.
One tremendously useful thing to sort for in your life is “what can I be grateful for”. Just asking this question of yourself on a daily basis, directs your attention to all of the good things in your life. Just like yellow cars, when you start consciously looking for such things you may be surprised at how abundant they truly are. Even better, if you write these things down in a Gratitude Journal that starts to really train your brain to be on the lookout for the good stuff. Suddenly it’s like you’re at a jumble sale and have managed to find all of the hidden treasures where yesterday you were only finding junk. Just by changing where you choose to look.
Some of the filters we have set up, we have had running for some time. It may even seem like there’s no other way to see the world. Many people are completely unaware that they are sorting their experience at all. Yet neuroscience and commonsense tells us we must be! There’s too much going on for us to be paying attention to it all. So once you accept that you are sorting your experience it makes absolute sense to take conscious control over what you sort for.
But be warned! Sorting for opportunity, improvement and gratitude, may leave you no room left to notice all the stuff that has been making you feel bad. Because we know, when we go looking for things on purpose, even when we hadn’t been sure how abundant they were, suddenly we start seeing them everywhere! Just like yellow cars.