Your life as a sieve

Your life as a sieve - image for article by Greg Alder

You have approximately 70,000 thoughts every day. If that seems like a lot, it might be because you’re not conscious of 63,000 of them. They occur subliminally.

If you live eighty years, that’s 5.6 million thoughts in your lifetime. What happens to these thoughts? Are they still there in your memory? Does this explain why you randomly recall a fact, a feeling, a smell, decades after the event?

It raises questions: Where have these memories been in the intervening years? Where have they been stored? Why have they resurfaced just now?

It raises more questions: What happens to the fleeting thoughts, the ones that you might have had one day, but don’t seem to be in our possession now? Why do you remember some thoughts and not others?

Let’s start with why you recall something you thought you’d long forgotten. This really comes down to your brain’s vast capacity for storage. Of the 70,000 thoughts you have in a day, your brain spends your sleeping hours sifting through them, filing them away. It files them with what it believes are related thoughts. The circumstances in which you had that original thought mightn’t be repeated for decades, so your brain has no reason to retrieve that thought. Years later, it will have an ah-ha moment and remind you of that dusty thought or fact.

Your brain will often be prompted to recall a thought by something that seems completely unrelated. The practiced brain becomes expert at making these connections. Original ideas come about by connecting things that seem to have no logical connection. Steve Jobs described creativity as just connecting things. Many of the greatest inventions of mankind are the result of unexpected connections.

Your subconscious brain rarely grants your conscious brain access to its workings and its repository of knowledge. You have no idea what’s filed in there until it’s suddenly and unexpectedly in the here and now.

So, why do you subconsciously select some of each day’s thoughts for storage and allow others to wash through the sieve and down the drain?

It comes down to context. The criteria that determine which thoughts you store and which you toss are these: Relevance, timeliness, respect and impact.

1. Relevance

You are bombarded with bits of knowledge every day. Various scientists have endeavoured to determine how many advertising messages you are exposed to each day. Early studies (from 1965 to 1972) suggest a range from 117 to 560 messages. You are naturally attentive to those that you feel apply to you.

If you are driving, you might pay attention to speed signs and safety signs. If you’re uncertain about where you are going, you might also pay attention to direction signs. If you are running low on fuel, you might pay attention to petrol station signs. If you are hungry, you might pay attention to signs for restaurants. If tired, you might seek signs for motels. If you are neither driving, nor lost nor hungry nor sleepy, you might not recall seeing any signs.

And yet, sometimes you will recall a distant thought that had no relevance to you at the time. Why is that?

2. Timeliness

Thoughts sometimes occur serendipitously. They turn up at the right time and the right place. They coincide with your mood, for example. They’re not necessarily relevant, but they tickle your fancy at the time. Trivia and anecdotes fall into this category.

Other facts are memorable because they coincide with a particular temporary task, a fleeting need. If you are in the market for a new home, you will retain information about a suburb you’re considering or a builder.

3. Respect

You value information that comes from sources you respect. You remember information you value. Your brain knows that information from one of your respected sources is worth storing – even if not immediately relevant.

4. Impact

You store thoughts that are mightily impressive, shocking or almost unbelievable. Thoughts presented with impact are also likely to be noticed and stored.

Those same studies that sought to enumerate the advertising messages you’re exposed to also attempted to separate those that you typically notice and those that go unnoticed. The unnoticed ads far outweighed the ones that had an impact. The latter probably had no impact because there was nothing impactful in the way they were created. Beige wallpaper. Static noise.

What the best leaders and the best marketers have in common is that they deliver impactful messages that are perfectly timed and relevant to their chosen audience. As a result, they earn their audience’s respect. Because they are respected, their messages are heard, stored, recalled and shared. A perfect circle.

That’s the really difficult task for most of us. Our messages are dull. They don’t match our audience’s needs. They are delivered at the wrong time and in the wrong context. We haven’t yet earnt the trust required to make our messages valuable.

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