Ever wondered why you see the world the particular way you do?
And why do you keep seeing the obstacles to your goals rather than the possibilities?
And how can you overcome habits that don’t work for you anymore?
You can try to blame problems on parents, teachers, or your government. But it turns out there are two culprits inside your own head. One is a small pencil-thin part of your brain, called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The second is its backup, your subconscious.
The good news is that you’re in charge here. In fact, you’re the programmer of your brain and you can change how it works at any time.
Ready to rein in these saboteurs and write some new “code”?
Your Extraordinary Uber-Computer Brain
Let’s take a bird’s eye view for a minute and consider the miracle of your brain.
Yet, of that 11 million, the conscious mind processes only 50 bits of information. The rest is compressed behind the scenes, outside of conscious awareness.
Your efficient brain manages many tasks on “automatic.” Through your habits and whatever you practice often, the brain creates neural connections. Then certain functions happen without conscious control.
These brain shortcuts you create give you an advantage. They can also limit you and how completely you see and respond to the world.
Let’s get to know the Reticular Activating System (RAS).
What is the RAS and why do you need it?
The Reticular Activating System is a network of neurons in the brain stem at the top of the spinal cord. It receives input from all the senses. The brain then creates conscious perception and response. The main function of the RAS is to regulate waking, sleeping, and dreaming transitions. It facilitates sensation and attention.
The RAS is about as big as a 2-inch pencil but it’s a powerhouse, acting as a gatekeeper or traffic controller. It reads the environment and responds. It makes sure you don’t receive more information than you can handle at any time.
You know how overload feels. You’re on the school run. Bobby screams that Jerome is kicking him. Sarah spills her smoothie on your seat. A car veers out from the curb in front of you. At that very moment, your boss calls you, again.
Without the RAS that would be life 24/7, multiplied many thousand-fold. And with every one of your senses at breaking point. Your mind has limited conscious bandwidth. The RAS pares information down so your mind is not overloaded. It’s the ultimate too-much-information (TMI) shield!
How does your brain know what’s important to you?
How does the RAS choose what to allow in? It prioritizes what you pay attention to and what will keep you safe.
Let’s go back to the driving-with-children-aboard example. There are high stakes here. The RAS helps. It makes sure you notice this visual (red traffic light) and this sound (police siren wailing). Why? Because in the past you’ve reacted to these signals (and they’re designed to get your attention).
But you will miss millions of other inputs. Chatter in the backseat, beach sand under the gas pedal, sticky feel of the steering wheel. The RAS filters out what’s not important to you right now.
Likewise, you can be in a noisy mall, but when someone calls out your name or your child cries, you hear it. Despite the muzak and everything else. Your brain is hard-wired to recognize these primal sounds.
The RAS ensures you pay attention to the safety of everything and everyone important to you.
Your RAS filter is custom-built for YOU alone
No two people see the world in exactly the same way. In any situation and all-day-long, we notice different things. Ask any married couple.
Two people watch a mystery movie together. One person catches the early clue, while it sails right by the other. One person is loving the sharp outfits of the detective and another the hint of a Scottish accent in her voice.
You’re out driving and your son can tell you the make of every car that’s passed you. But you’re in the market for a new car, so you only notice how that particular brand seems to be everywhere on the road.
Your RAS remembers what’s important to you. It responds to where your attention has gone in the past. It filters through the memories and priorities that your subconscious has stored. Scans the current environment and presents to you what’s relevant.
How to hack your changing brain
Recent research on the brain shows that your brain changes, it’s malleable. This is neuroplasticity. Your brain adapts according to your experiences.
For example, how long do you sleep? How do you challenge your mind? How much time do you enjoy with your family and friends? All these activities determine the neural connections you make in your brain.
New behaviors lead to new thoughts which lead to new behaviors. A virtuous or vicious cycle — as you choose.
Your brain’s RAS is custom-built for and by you. You can reprogram it as your interests and needs change. You can give it new filters so that your RAS serves you new input to match what you want now.
For example, if exercise doesn’t matter to you, then you won’t pay attention to exercise. Your brain won’t waste your precious attention on anything about exercise.
When you decide exercise is important, you’ll start to see how it’s everywhere. You’ll see a good place to jog. You’ll pick up a fitness magazine and some new running shoes. Your RAS responds to your updated attention. You’ll notice how many sports ads are on TV and hear your friends brag about their best Pilates move.
You can get what you want
Knowledge is power. Armed with a deeper understanding of your brain, you can create a whole new way of looking at the world.
A slew of old habits may no longer serve you. You need to let your RAS know the updated agenda.
Your grade school teacher told you that you can’t draw? But you yearn to be an artist. You’re scared to even pick up a pencil and have no idea where to sign up for an art class.
Why not try Googling “art class near me” and asking for help at an art supplies store to get you going with materials? In the privacy of home, watch an online beginner’s class. Notice how the world of drawing comes onto your radar now.
Or it’s dawned on you that you have an issue with self-esteem. Start a daily journal recording everything that proves how good/kind/capable you are. Then ask a few friends what they admire in you. Write it down, read it and watch while you grow in confidence and poise.
Or you realize that you need a big change. You’ve been conservative in life so far and want to break loose. Take a chance, make a small change, decide to try something new. Send the refresh message to your brain. You’ll start to see opportunities for growth and challenges that you’ve missed before.
These behavior changes draw a new script in your subconscious. They override the old story you were telling yourself. You’re redirecting your RAS with the updated goals and outlook you have now by repeated focus and action. You know how to ask Alexa/Google to show you the nearest cafe. Now you’re letting your mind know: “I’m interested in this. Show me what’s possible.”
You may want a new career or relationship or place to live. You may be looking for a healthier way to spend Saturday afternoon. You want to know how to have a gentler conversation with your kids.
Your RAS will get new messages about what’s important to you and filter those into your perception. Your world will start to look different.
Time-tested advice to follow
Rewiring your thought patterns to achieve your goals is not a new idea.
Mahatma Gandhi said it this way,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
And the great 2nd century Roman emperor and scholar, Marcus Aurelius:
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
And Buddha himself:
“What you think you become.”
Choose the world you want
In the end, the choice and decision to change your habits and way of seeing is yours alone. Your RAS is waiting for your direction. It exists to serve you. It’s designed for your progress.
How about today, take a step in the direction of who you want to become. Resolve to change an old pattern of thought. Recognize what it is. Then take a small action to move beyond that limitation.
Then do it tomorrow. And again the next day. Be alert to notice how your world changes.
The world you want to see, full of bright possibilities, is there already. You only need to upgrade your lens.