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Taming the R.A.S in your brain

Our brains are fascinating things that researchers are still trying to figure out.

One of my favourite researchers to follow is an Hungarian - American Psychologist.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be one of the co-founders of positive psychology. He was the first to identify and research FLOW and has produced some amazing research findings on the brain, specifically on Flow states and the pursuit of happiness.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

In his research he has estimated the processing capacity of the conscious mind to be at about 120 bits of information per second. That may not mean much on its own

(I mean - not many of us speak that IT language of BITs and BUTEs)

but it can seem quite astounding when you consider that your subconscious mind is able to absorb over 11 million bits of information per second!

That's a huge amount of information -

if humans were consciously aware of all of that information, we’d probably all go a little crazy. So our brain uses a type of filter system to 'decide' which pieces of information seem relevant, or important in any given moment - and then THAT is the information that gets filtered through to our 'awareness', to our conscious mind.

This filtering system is known as the Reticular Activating System (the RAS), and its sort of like a filing system in our subconscious brain.

It very quickly filters through the information and sends what it deems as relevant or pertinent through to the conscious mind with about a half second delay.

Thats a pretty impressive system. Quick, efficient, and reliable.

There are many things that can influence the 'filtering system'.

Practice and repetition allow many activities to become automatic and habitual (therefore not requiring any need to tax the limited processing ability of the conscious mind).

Things like walking and eating can happen quite automatically, without taxing the processing capacity of the conscious mind.

If you’ve ever noticed that you drove most of the way from A to B, but you can’t actually remember the drive - that’s the part of the RAS that’s on auto to save your conscious mind to focus on things that haven’t yet become habitual.

The filtering system (RAS) bases some of its ‘decision making’ on your recent search history (so to speak)!

It is taking note of where and what you place your attention on, and filters through the massive amount of incoming data to find more things that it 'thinks' will be of interest to you.

A bit like YouTube.

If you've ever searched YouTube for a particular video, you will notice that as the video comes to an end, the YouTube algorithm serves up a list of related videos with captions like:


Many online stores use this same type of process - ‘because you purchased x, you may be interested in y’!

Amazon is great at creating these kinds of lists.

If you've ever gone through a relationship break up, and then noticed that all you hear on the radio is break up songs - this is an indication of the RAS in action.

And if we are not intentionally creating our 'latest hits' file, then the RAS just serves up more of the same from the past history of focus and attention.

So, if you are busy worrying about how little money you have in the bank, you may notice that all you see around you are things that PROVE to you that YES you are broke.

So, how is it then that we can influence the RAS so that we can be sent more helpful information that can propel us forward and give us creative ideas for solving our problems?

I recently heard Blaine Oelkers on a TED talk describing how the RAS works by using a garden analogy.

If you plant a tomato seed in a garden, you can only grow a tomato plant. It won't magically grow a carrot or oak tree.

You GROW what you PLANT.

And if you are not actively gardening and planting the seeds that you want, you will have a 'free-range' garden plot - most likely full of weeds, some wild flowers and anything that has maybe grown on that soil before.

Blaine's philosophy is that WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT, YOU BRING ABOUT.

You can help steer your RAS to deliver more positive information, more positive insights and ideas by being very intentional about 'what you are planting' - or what you are focusing on.

Albert Einstein famously quoted

'No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it'.

If you are obsessively focusing on the problem, your RAS will filter through and find more information that 'proves' the problem exists.

To find a solution, you need to shift your focus and attention to be able to allow the RAS to access different data that has been absorbed by the subconscious brain, but hasn't been able to get through to your awareness yet.

What he's talking about here, is basically recalibrating the RAS so that it serves up new or more pertinent information than your previous awareness.

Here's a really good example of this in action.

Have you ever been at a social event, and been introduced to someone or seen someone across the room and thought

"Argh, i can't remember their name"

This happens so often, and the more you try to think of their name, the more you draw a blank, you are so busy focusing on the fact that you can't remember their name, that the RAS delivers up proof and you are left BLANK.

And then hours later, while you are relaxing at home and doing something completely unrelated to the event, that persons name just pops into your mind. Like out of nowhere.

Its as if, once the message and focus comes off

'I can't remember their name, what's wrong with me....'

Your RAS can take some time, filter through ALL of the information stored in the massive filing cabinet that is the subconscious mind, and deliver the information you were searching for.

It's interesting that some people have beliefs that they always get sick in winter, or they never have good luck - and so guess what. The RAS can work really efficiently to prove them right.

The key is to take the RAS off autopilot and to start to have some influence over what information and 'proof' you are exposed to / aware of.

That's all good and well, but how the heck do you influence or recalibrate your RAS?

One of the greatest tools you have at your disposal is your smart phone.

(Apologies if you are reading this and you DON'T have a smart phone - you can still find a solution, you might just have to get a little creative!!!)

  • Blaine Oelkers suggests creating a message and saving it as your screen saver.

Researchers have found that on average, people unlock their phone 110 times a day.

Imagine if every time you had to unlock your phone you were greeted with some kind of positive RAS trigger! So many of us have our screen saver as the factory default setting - we’ve never bothered to change it. Taking a few minutes to whip up a screen saver that reminds you to focus on something positive is a simple life hack to improve your filter.

So, for example, if you are struggling with your business, you could create a screen saver that has images that represent a successful business and maybe a motto or phrase saying something like - I am a success, or my business is booming.

You find what words and images work for you. I would highly recommend using images as well as a catchy phrase. Our brains respond favourably to symbolism.

  • A favourite tip of mine is to set a reminder alarm on your phone, to go off maybe every hour - with a simple message alert with a similar motto or phrase that helps you focus on something positive and uplifting or exciting.

  • The good old Vision board is also a great trigger to wake up the RAS. Find images that represent the type of future you wish to create, create a collage of those images on a board and then make sure your board is visible to you every day. A wee jolt of possibility.

  • And my all time go-to suggestion would be to create a daily habit that focuses on gratitude.

Spend some time EVERY day, focusing on what you are grateful for, what you appreciate in life, what makes you smile, and inspires you.

Vishen Lakhiani (founder of MindValley) has a great 3 step gratitude practice that I use every day.

  1. - focus on things that you are grateful for in your life, this might be your home, family, possessions, friends.... anything you like. It doesn't have to be deep and meaningful, it can be as simple as a great cup of coffee or your favourite pair of shoes. As long as when you think about that thing, it brings up a positive emotion for you. Allow that emotion to fill every cell in your body.

  2. Now focus on things that you are grateful for in your career.

  3. Finally, bring your attention to yourself and allow yourself to be grateful for whatever aspects of your personality, your values, your actions that create a positive emotion within you. This final step can be difficult in the beginning. Usually we are so hard on ourselves and don't often spend time appreciating the good parts. Take time, and allow yourself to be kind and gracious about your own strengths.

Bringing awareness into our days at various times, when we so often run on autopilot can open up all sorts of new possibilities and opportunities for us.

So, pick a hack from the list above and implement it today and then take note of the little shifts in your awareness.

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