The Reticular Activating System – Use your Brain for a Change

Have you ever wondered why “lucky” people seem to attract opportunities and those who believe they are unlucky are never short of evidence to prove themselves right? One answer lies in how our brains work – and in particular the so-called reticular activating system.


Reticular Activating System


And the good news is, once you understand how the reticular activating system works, it can become a powerful ally in setting and achieving goals.

Every second we are bombarded with sensory information, if we had to process everything we would be overwhelmed.  Anyway, most of the information is unimportant or not relevant so we can safely not pay any attention to it.

The Reticular Activating system determines what we do pay attention to and filters out the unimportant, it does this in two ways.

Level 1:  The Sentinel

At this level it is operating completely outside out conscious control, scanning for potential threats and danger.

Have you ever been in a crowded place full of people talking, suddenly across the room someone says your name and your attention is immediately drawn there even though you were not consciously listening to their conversation?  You could say that we are “hearing” everything but we only actually “listen” to what is being said when our attention is drawn to it.

Or maybe there have been times when you feel something brush against an arm or a foot, your attention will immediately go there to see what caused the sensation even though you were not deliberately paying attention to the sensations in your hands or feet prior to that moment.

Level 2:  The Faithful Servant

As well as the automatic filtering for signs of danger or threat, we can also programme the reticular activating system ourselves by choosing what to have our attention directed towards.  This is why goal setting, affirmations and visualisation can be useful activities – we are effectively telling our reticular activating system what is important to us which then allows it to bring to our attention all the relevant information which otherwise might have remained as background noise.

This is the same effect that you might have noticed after deciding to buy a new car – you’ve chosen the make, the model and the colour (which tells the RAS that these things are important to you), and the moment you leave the showroom you notice that nearly every other car on the road seems to be that make, model and colour.  They were always there but there had been no reason to pay attention to them!

This also explains why goals should always be expressed in the positive – i.e.  what you want rather than what you don’t want.  If you had a goal of not eating sugar, your attention would be constantly directed to the thing you wanted to avoid, a more useful programme would be created by the goal “I want to eat healthily”.

Using the Reticular Activating System

So, returning to our lucky person – because they believe they are lucky, they have programmed themselves to notice opportunities.  The unlucky person on the other hand is scanning their environment for evidence to re-affirm this identity.

Take the opportunity now to set a goal or create an affirmation – really feeling it and visualising success so that you can begin to re-wire your brain to seek out the resources you need to achieve what you want.

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