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The Reticular Activating System: Your Brain's Bouncer

Updated: May 29

Have you ever noticed that people who say, “I’m always late!” are always late? And people who say, “I’m not creative at all!” are typically not very creative? We all craft a personal narrative and it’s written by the words we use. If you tell yourself you’re never going to lose weight, you probably won’t. If you tell yourself you're angry, it’s likely that you’ll act angry. If you tell yourself you're a failure, you'll be able to come up with all kinds of examples to prove it.

“The words you speak become the house you live in.” — Hafiz

Self-talk is a powerful thing! The stronger your belief is about what you can and cannot do, the more you will tell yourself that you can or cannot do that thing. The more you tell yourself, the more you’ll look for evidence to prove it to be true. This is partially due to confirmation bias, but it also has to do with a tiny bundle of neurons found at the top of the brain stem. While it’s only about the size of a pencil eraser, the reticular activating system has a big job. As the brain’s bouncer, it decides what information to let in and what information to ignore.

The human brain processes about 11 million bits of information per second, but we are only consciously aware of about 40 bits per second. Your RAS sifts through all the incoming information and presents only the pieces that are important to you. All of this happens without you noticing. Think of the RAS as the bridge between your subconscious and your conscious awareness.

The RAS attempts to “automate” our behavioral responses. For example, the first time you drive to work, you might pay a lot of attention to each turn and the time it takes to get there. After a few weeks, you don't even think about the route you're taking to get there. That’s the RAS slowly automating behavior so you don’t always have to burn through your attention reserves just to get to work.

In the same way, the RAS seeks information to confirm that which you believe to be true. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters. If you think you suck at public speaking, you probably will. If you really want to learn to paint, you’ll tune in to the right information that helps you do that. If you are a conscientious member of your community, you will likely look for ways to be a thoughtful neighbor. The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your thoughts and actions.

Think of the RAS as an executive assistant that allows us to focus on what we need or value and ignore everything else as junk. So, how does it determine what’s important and what's junk? We program it by the things we think about and focus on. For example, imagine you're thinking about buying a sexy little sports car. Chances are pretty good that you'll start to see that car everywhere. Is it because there are suddenly more of them on the road? It's more likely that you've programmed that bit of information as "relevant" to your RAS.

Applying these principles, the RAS is actually the key to motivation and success, too. If you have a strong belief that you WILL reach that goal – losing weight, listening better, writing that book – your self talk will reflect that, and your RAS will be on the lookout for the people and things that will help you reach it. Program your RAS for what you want by intentionally writing a personal narrative that serves you.

I am creative.

I am a good listener.

I am an author.

Tell yourself you are what you want to be, and then your brain will start to show you things that will help you get what you want to prove that belief is true.

Remember when your teacher scolded you for daydreaming? It turns out that the more you daydream about your goals, the more likely you’ll reach them. Imagining yourself the way you want to be means that you are gradually programming your RAS to focus on your goals and ways to achieve them.

There is a wealth of research demonstrating the power of visualization, but the simplest method is to keep your goals clearly in focus. Simplify the objectives to a few words and write them down on sticky notes where you’ll see them frequently. Send them to yourself in an email with one or two steps toward reaching them. Display your new “I will” or “I am” statement on your phone or computer wallpaper.

The RAS is not magic, and it's not woo-woo science. But it will allow you to notice more opportunities to help you get what you want. The caveat is that the opportunities you see will be relative to your beliefs, focus and vision. If the RAS can help you notice that car you’re thinking about, why not put it to use on what really matters?


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