The Secret of the Reticular Activating System

A truly creative person rids him or herself
of all self-imposed limitations.
Gerald Jampolsky

Your mind has a powerful filtering system that creates blind spots.

Have you noticed how when you read a book and the story fills your imagination, the outer world begins to fade away? You don’t hear the traffic outside or someone calling for you. They have to speak more loudly just to get through to you.

Have you noticed how you can be at a party with everyone talking and you can hardly understand what anyone is saying? But when someone mentions your name, that gets through to you?

Have you noticed how when you fall asleep your senses slowly shut down, your body loses sensation, and then you are off to sleep? Then almost nothing gets through to you?

Our senses take in 11 million pieces of data in each moment, but we can only consciously process up to 40 pieces per second. The part of your brain working as a filter to manage sense perception is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS).

If the mind didn’t have the RAS, you’d go crazy. Think of all the information coming in through all your senses. The sights, the sounds, the tactile sensations.

Think of all those little hairs on your body. If you focus on any part of your body, you would become aware of the sensation there.

The RAS is a network of cells in the center of the brain associated with waking, sleeping, attention, and focus. It physically filters irrelevant sensory input.

The RAS allows you to focus. It functions like an executive assistant, a kind of censor of what’s not important. It screens out the junk.

The RAS determines what information
gets through to you.

What you Value,
or what you think is a Threat.

RAS2
As we focus on something important, things that are less important, things that we Devalue, fade away. Important information gets through, whatever we consider valuable or threatening.

This explains why teenagers can be watching TV or playing a video game, and a parent can call them to dinner and not be heard. The Value of the parent’s voice goes down in proportion to the importance of the TV.

This explains why eight people at a large dinner table can have cross conversations with each other and still carry on. As you focus on something important like your own conversation, the others nearby fade because they lose Value to you.

This explains why a new mother sleeps through the alarm clock going off, the jet flying overhead, and the truck driving by, but when the baby starts crying, she wakes up right away. The other sounds are not a Threat so they don’t get through the censor, but the threatening sound of the baby gets through.

What you Value gets through.
What you Devalue gets filtered out.

I knew a couple with a barking dog that kept half the neighborhood awake. The owners were never bothered by it. However, the barking threatened the neighbors’ peace of mind so it got through their mental filter.

But the owners loved their dog and were comforted and felt protected by its barking. They would have no problem sleeping through the night. Their neighbors may also have slept better if they understood that any burglars in the area would be warned off by a barking dog.

Once I worked at a company that decided to move my group to a different building. I was placed next to a service elevator.

You can imagine what that means. All day long, every day, I would hear that elevator opening and closing, opening and closing.

What did I do?

Because I knew about the RAS, I immediately told myself, “That elevator doesn’t matter to me.” When people asked me, “Isn’t that elevator going to bug you all day?” I’d answer, “No, I won’t even notice it.”

And almost from the beginning my RAS screened it out. It never bothered me.

A colleague who used to have an office was now in an open cube. He did not know about the RAS. He was used to closing the door and having quiet.

He would hear me talking on the phone over two cubes away and he would stand up and say, “Mark, you are talking too loud.”

Every sound was a threat to him, so every sound got through.

The key is knowing that you control what gets through.

It depends on how you
psychologically evaluate the sensation.

This fact is particularly important to teachers.

How often do we accuse a child of not paying attention to the teacher? But what if the teacher is not making the history lesson, or math lesson, or science lesson interesting to the child?

The teacher and the course material
fade away.

The child can be looking right at a teacher as the teacher explains something and not get it. (We all have experienced this. We lose interest, our minds wander, the filters kick in because we become interested in our own thoughts or daydreaming. And minutes go by where nothing the teacher/boss/television/ politician says gets through.)

What happens when the child sees no Value in what the teacher is saying?

The child’s RAS screens out the teacher. It’s the teacher’s job to make sure the class material is perceived as valuable by the child.

So the question is, what do you Value in life? And what do you Devalue?

Because now you know that if you devalue important things, they will not get through your mind’s automatic filter.

What do you Devalue?
Could what you Devalue actually hold Value?
How will you know if you are blind to it?

***
from Creating Your Life: What You Should’ve Learned as a Teen, Book 1

01-Creating-res100

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