What Filters Do You Use to Manage Sensory Overload?

Have you ever been in a situation with too much light, smell, sound, or cold/warmth? Or you took a bite of something, expecting a subtle taste—and felt overwhelmed with the taste you got? That’s a sensory overload. We learn to filter out the “noise” from the signal when we feel sensory overload. And some of us either have or choose different filters. When do your filters work and when don’t they?

We use various filters for our five senses, such as narrowing or expanding our field of view. Or we might wear a sweater if we’re cold or take one off if we’re warm. I find it more difficult to “narrow” my hearing or my sense of smell. (My husband and I continue to discuss the volume of the television and the too-strong (for me) fragrance of the soap in the kitchen.

Extra input does not contribute to a good sensory experience. In fact, the words I often use are: “I can’t make sense of it all.”

You’ve probably heard the expression, “filter the signal from the noise.” While I first heard that in the context of an electrical signal on a line, the ideas work for our physical sensory overload and our intellectual and emotional overloads.

Filter the Signals from the Noise with Double-Loop Learning

Double-loop learning helps us filter the signals from the noise. Given out assumptions, we plan. As we proceed, we check, adjust, and replan—even as we change our mental models.  The more we adjust, the more we successfully use several feedback loops to learn and succeed.

You’ve done this whenever you adjusted the temperature in the shower.  Or when you change your clothing to better adapt. And those sunglasses when it’s too bright for you? Another case of double-loop learning.

But the emotional or intellectual overloads? Some people stay stuck, not learning from their experiences. In that case, we require mental filters so we can manage our lives through this emotional or intellectual overload. Sometimes, I have trouble realizing which filters I have access to, and when to use them.

Assess Your Mental Filters

The mental filters I use most are my mental models of the world. For example, one piece of my mental model is that people often offer to help if they think you need it. Another is that I can believe in abundance, even if others don’t.

One of my strongest mental filters is that “everyone” can learn from experience. Not that they do—but that they can.

I learned years ago that my learning belief as a filter is incorrect. Teenagers taught me that. One-one-one, many teenagers are quite reasonable. We can have a civil conversation.

Get a bunch of teenagers together? Take the highest IQ, divide by the total number of people, and that’s the IQ we’re all dealing with. (Lest you think I was a smart teenager, no, I was not. I was much more of a smart-ass, not smart. In hindsight, I, too, did not assess risks the way I do now.)

Too many teenagers act this way:

  • One person has a “bright” idea. (This idea often involves risks that any single person would reject if they were alone.)
  • Other people take that idea and amplify it.
  • They all run together towards that idea and execute it.

That’s why teenagers dive into quarries, drink too much before they drive, or run into the ocean even when the beach posts riptide warnings. Not all teenagers. But enough.

Teenagers might not know about double-loop learning, or even the phrase, “learning from experience.”

As adults, we’re “supposed” to know and use our experience. We don’t always.

However, if we examine our mental models, we can learn.

Use Your Emotional and Intellectual Overload to Learn

Since I value learning, I work to use my overload feelings to examine my mental filters and mental models. How do I learn what’s signal and what’s noise? What do I filter in and filter out?

I am sure you and I choose differently. But the more we consider different filters, the more we can manage all of our overloads. Most of us are pretty good at managing our sensory overload. We can learn to manage our emotional and intellectual overload. And that’s what I’m learning I need right now.

That’s the question of the week: What filters do you use to manage sensory overload?

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