You’ve finally made the decision that you’re going to buy a new car, and have decided on the make and model of the one you’re going to purchase. But you can’t decide on the colour; you’re leaning toward the red as it’s your favourite colour, but you also like the white.
Over the following few days until you go to back to the car dealership to make a final decision you notice that there seems to be nothing but red cars around you everywhere you go.
You leave your house, there’s a red car…
You walk up to the shop, there’s another one…
You drive across town to visit your parents and you end up counting thirty red cars driving in the opposite direction….
No matter where you look you can’t escape it. Look left, look right, look up, looks down, it’s all red cars….red cars….red caaaaaaaaaars!
You take a second to think about all of this clear evidence of what you’re seeing and you come to the conclusion that this must be ‘a loud and clear sign’ that you’re making the right choice.
There’s no doubt.
This has to be the universe’s way of showing you that the car you’ve chosen has to be in red.
But come on, is it really the universe wading in on the decision? Or is it simply a small example demonstrating how your mind is playing out your cognitive biases?
I’m going to go with the latter.
Your Reticular Activating System
Within the depths of our brain is a bundle of nervers at our brainstem called our Reticular Activating System (RAS). One of its key aspects is that it acts as a gatekeeper, selecting particular information that is then filtered into your conscious mind from all of your different sensory channels that are constantly receiving masses of information every second.
For example, as I sit here typing this blog post there’s a man outside mixing cement in a nearby garden. When he first started scraping his spade on the floor as he mixed it, my brain took note of the sound and actively diverted my full attention away from typing on my laptop and tuned it into this sharp sound, and caused me to be momentarily alert to it. After I had become accustomed to the sound, knew what it was, and ultimately decided it to not be something that was important to me, my RAS took the wheel again. From that point forward it effectively stopped my conscious mind from receiving this particular sound as a priority piece of information to focus on, and my attention went back to typing. Therefore, although I know the man has been steadily mixing cement for the last three hours, I can only recall a couple of occasions when I actually heard him doing it.
Why Is This Important To Share With You?
It’s necessary to understand the pivotal influence your RAS plays regarding emotional experiences, the effects this has on your daily life, and your subsequent thoughts and actions that flow from it. Not only that, but the role that your personal belief system plays in the selectivity of information your receive, and the positive and negative effects of this.
The combination of these factors means a group of people can go through the exact same experience, but their personal perception of their reality and the world means they will all be reflecting on that experience from different viewpoints, resulting in different responses and outcomes.
“Just like a computer, your brain has a search function–but it’s even more phenomenal than a computer’s. It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with. It’s the seat of what many people have referred to as the paradigms we maintain’
(Getting Things Done – Book by David Allen)
Your RAS And Your Belief System
When your belief system, or certain aspects of it, is rooted in mostly positive outlook, your reticular activating system can work fantastically well in your favour by focusing your mind into reinforcing that positivity.
If you envisage achieving a goal you’ve set yourself, your brain continually picks out messages and information throughout the day that further strengthen your internal message to yourself. This in turn will help motivate and drive you on to keep working towards what you set out to achieve, and the likelihood of you attaining your goal will be heightened, and more likely accomplished.
For example – you want to write a book, and you believe you can do it:
- You start writing your book.
- You find yourself coming across and reading articles of other people who have achieved this, and your RAS highlights the quotes where they explained how they overcame their difficulties in the writing process.
- You believe you can do it too.
- Your RAS also highlights the motivating phrases the authors used on themselves to keep them on track.
- You implement similar phrases as you go back to your writing desk.
- You keep writing your book.
- You believe you have the ability to do it too.
- You happen to come across meeting a couple of people who are published writers, listening to them talking about their highs and lows of writing, but your RAS highlighs the strength of their persistence to keep putting themselves out there when they were being rejected by some publishers.
- The motivation from their experiences keeps you motivated, even when you’re struggling.
- You read success stories of a few more authors and your RAS highlights that they didn’t give up.
- You believe that will be you one day.
- You continue to write your book.
- You eventually finish writing your book.
- You knew you could and now you start to think of new ideas for writing another one.
However, for negative beliefs, your RAS becomes part of a vicious cycle; it filters through to your subconscious mind pieces of information that feed your believed negative narrative about a situation (eg yourself, other people, the world around you), which then continues to keep that belief at the forefront of your mind. Then when another piece of information that perpetuates that narrative is received by your brain, your RAS will automatically bring it to the front of your attention, seemingly only to prove further that what you negatively believe about that situation is correct.
By default, other information that you’re receiving, which may be in contradiction to this perceived belief, will be left on the conveyor belt of information you brain is receiving. Instead of picking it out to balance your negative belief, it passes right under your nose without you even noticing, as you’re too busy focusing, ingesting and internalising your own version of truth and reality.
This is where we tend to then find ourselves using catastrophising language such as words like ‘all’ and ‘every’, as that’s the narrative you are allowing yourself to believe. And so the vicious cycle continues on, as the use of these extreme words keep the negative way of thinking in full swing, continually feeding the RAS to further pick out more ‘relevant’ information.
“We notice only what matches our internal belief systems and identified contexts. If you’re an optometrist, for example, you’ll tend to notice people wearing eyeglasses across a crowded room; if you’re building contractor, you may notice the room’s physical details”
If we were to revisit the above example of writing a book, but through a negative belief system which is being fertilised by your reticular activating system then the process might look like this:
.You start writing a book, but you don’t believe you have the ability to do it:
*Notice the catastrophising language that has also seeped its way into the thought process as you read through the following…*
- You start writing your book.
- You find yourself coming reading articles of other people who have achieved this, and your RAS highlights the quotes where they detailed how much of a constant struggle the writing process was.
- You believe you will struggle too, and it will be too hard.
- Your RAS highlights the struggling phrases that were in the article , such as the authors ‘wanted to give up’
- You implement similar phrases as you go back to your writing desk and become disillusioned.
- You put off writing your book for that week.
- You believe you don’t really have the ability to do it.
- You happen to come across meeting a couple of people who are published writers, listening to them talking about their highs and lows of writing, and your RAS highlights all of the parts of the conversation where writing seemed to be a never-ending barrage of rejections from every publisher, and how emotionally draining the entire process was.
- The seemingly endless struggle of their experiences starts to confirm that this is all too difficult.
- You read success stories of a few more authors and your RAS highlights that their success is only related to a few, rather than the masses.
- You believe that you won’t be one of the few.
- You put off writing your book for another two weeks.
- You then stop writing your book altogether.
- You look back years later and frequently find in conversation to others saying; ‘If only I had finished writing that book I started, I always wonder where it would have taken me….’
How To Make Your RAS Work In Your Favour
Did you know that you can actually physically change your brain cells to help you realize your dreams? Whenever you repeat an affirmation or visualize something using a lot of passion and emotion, new neural pathways are formed. Intense emotional experiences actually stimulate the growth of additional spiny protuberances on the dendrites of brain neurons, which result in more neural connections and stronger memory and retention of that thought.
If I was to ask you where you were when you saw the twin towers collapse on 9/11 I’m confident you’d be able to describe an incredibly vivid picture of that moment. For myself, I was at secondary school and had just got home. I walked into the living room and saw the towers on fire on the news. I remember thinking it was a film at first because what I was witnessing was so powerful I couldn’t quite process what I was seeing. The power and emotion of that visual is now permanently etched vivdly in my brain seventeen years after that event happened.
If we take that example and apply that strength of memory to a goal you wish to solidify in your mind in order to achieve then here are a few steps you can work on:
- Immerse yourself in that visualisation: how it will look, feel and sound when you achieve your goal – write it down, or make a voicenote! Capture this moment where you are allowing yourself to be free in thought of what you can achieve.
- Know Your Why: Bring it to life with that passion and emotion of why you want to achieve it.
- Five positive affirmations: Write them down so that they counter the negative thoughts your RAS might be feeding you, put them somewhere you will see them everyday (next to the bathroom mirror is a great place) and say them to yourself out loud at least once a day if you can.
- Focus on it: Make this goal your priority. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by channelling positivity into fuelling your drive and motivation to see it through.
- Write down and acknowledge your mini-milestones: As you reach these moments make abit of a song and dance of it! This is hugely important to combat any lurking beliefs that your goal is out of reach. You can challenge your negative beliefs bit by bit through using that piece of paper to remind yourself (constantly if needs be) how step by step you are achieving what you set out to do.