The Reticular Activating System and How It Influences Your Behavior and Performance
I am sure we all know people who never seem to get what they say they want out of life. Or, maybe you have a lot of aspirations, but you always seem to be stuck in a particular rut. What you should know is that your mind is the most important and the most powerful force in the universe. In fact, your mind is the genesis (origin) of your destiny (future achievements). You should also know that your mind works in direct harmony with your brain and other neurological functions to create your reality. If you have a perpetual situation in your life, it can, without fail, be traced to your thinking.
One of the major neurological influences on behavior is the Reticular Activating System (RAS), a bundle of neuro-connectors and nerves that connects the brain stem, cerebrum, and cerebellum and mediates your overall level of consciousness. You can view the RAS as the gateway keeper of the data and information that is allowed into your conscious mind.
Your subconscious mind and the non-conscious brain are bombarded with over two to four-billion bits of information per second, far more than your conscious mind can process at any given moment. Your RAS operates as a filter to remove any information that it believes is not important to you at a given time. Your RAS is always at work performing this responsibility.
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All your senses, except the sense of smell (which is wired to your brains emotional center), is wired through this network of neuro-receptors that determine what information you will be exposed to at a conscious level. The RAS plays an immense role in controlling the sensory information that you are forced to perceive on a daily basis.
Your sensory organs are feeding billions of bits of information to your brain every second — far more than your conscious mind can process; therefore, your RAS serves as the gatekeeper to your conscious mind — determining what information will be allowed in and what will be kept out. For the next 20 seconds, take the time to really listen and watch to see just how much is going on around you that you never really notice. Now imagine attempting to manage your thoughts if you had to process all that activity every second of the day.
The RAS determines what needs to be funneled into your conscious mind and what can be safely ignored. Being that the reptilian brain, the most ancient part of our brain, is wired for survival, you can imagine that the RAS is highly trained to recognize information that is representative of a threat of harm or death. This type of information will always be given the highest priority. Apart from the sense of smell, all sensory information, including visual stimuli, sound, touch, and taste are processed through the RAS.
The term “reticular” means “net or web-like. So, the RAS is a net-like formation of nerve cells and neuro-receptors that are embedded within the brainstem — lying between the brain and the spinal cord. While the RAS does not play a role in interpreting sensory information, it does play a vital role in categorizing it and filing it away. It also works to activate the entire cerebral cortex — making it more alert and increasing its level of readiness to interpret incoming data, simultaneously preparing the brain to take the appropriate action.
Depending on how the conscious mind interprets a specific bit of information, the RAS will ascribe a level of importance and priority to it, primarily based on the amount of attention you consciously give to it. Because the RAS does not have the capacity to interpret the information, it does not determine what is bad or good, but simply what you give the most attention to. This is why it is important not to focus on things you don’t want or like. While your conscious mind may be able to determine that you don’t want to focus on the negative situations in your marriage, your RAS only notices that you are spending a lot of time thinking or talking about the negative situations in your marriage, it cannot determine that you are actually saying or thinking that you don’t like to focus on it, only that you are, by constantly addressing it and focusing on it.
Whatever you give the most attention to is what your RAS is going to expose you to in the form of supportive data. If you are constantly thinking about the problems in your marriage, your financial struggles, your dead-end job, etc., your RAS is going to give you a heavy dose of what you are focusing on — serving to amplify the negative feelings associated with that current reality.
Your RAS plays a role in almost every decision you make and your habitual behavior. Not only will your RAS help you identify those things that are important to you but it works hard to find information that aligns with what you have placed emphasis on. This ability of the RAS to identify information that is aligned with those things that are important you means that it is your responsibility to make sure that you are giving mental attention to the right things. If it is financial issues that you are looking to rectify, don’t focus on what is wrong, focus on the results that you desire.
“Your brain is like a supercomputer and your self-talk is the program it will run.” ~ Unknown
“Your mind is always eavesdropping on your self-talk.” ~ Jim Kwik
Your self-talk plays a major role in establishing what your RAS determines as being important to you, subsequently determining the sensory information it will allow into your conscious. If you are constantly saying that you are not good at something, your RAS will constantly expose you to information that will support that belief and influence the behavior around that belief.
The combination of your RAS and your beliefs will shape your behavior and work toward creating the rituals and habits that will determine the results that you get in life. It is important for you to understand that you have the ability to control your performance by controlling your beliefs, thoughts, and self-talk. You will get out of your mind what you feed it consistently, so you may need to change your mental diet. You should focus on the results you want and identify with anything that supports the suggestion that you can have what you desire.
Keep in mind that you don’t get what you want, you get what you are. If you want something that you are not currently getting, you will have to become the person who is capable of producing those results. The thing is that it is always possible to become what is needed if you are feeding your mind the proper diet that supports the development of self-confidence in that area, and the RAS plays a major role in that process, but because it does not have the capacity to interpret data, it needs you to determine what is vital for you and what is not. You determine what is important or vital to you by what you focus on consistently. If you are focusing on the negative side of the equation, the RAS will find everything associated with that negative reality — creating a negative state and a negative environment that serves to perpetuate negative decision making and negative behavior. Conversely, when you focus on the positive, those results that you want for yourself and the elevated standard of excellence that you are holding yourself to, you will send a clear message to your RAS that these are the things that are important to you and you will begin to experience a constant barrage of positive information that will support your personal growth. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.
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