Reticular Activating System

When your subconscious mind becomes focused on something, you start to notice it — or things very similar to it — wherever you go. This happens because of your reticular activating system (or “RAS”), complex and highly integrated networks of cells within the brainstem that help regulate your sleep-wake cycle and help you ignore/pay attention things that matter/don’t matter to you.

It’s thanks to the RAS that you can walk down a street on autopilot, barely noticing anything until suddenly, you become highly alert (or as brain scientists prefer to call it, aroused) to something that interests, attracts or threatens you.

Beyond its survival value, how else can you use the RAS to your advantage?

"Please don't deface my facade."Apart from the types of stimuli that seem to be almost pre-loaded for instant recognition into your RAS — human universals such as seeing blood, noticing the movement of a snake, perceiving a configuration of objects that resemble a face, hearing your own name called out, catching the first three notes of Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses — – there are also all kinds of stimuli that you can train your RAS to pay attention to… and in doing so, become smarter.

Time Management, Problem Solving & Creative Thinking

Have you ever banged your head against an intractable problem, only to have it solved much later, usually in unrelated circumstances? Have you ever experienced l’esprit de l’escalier? This is your RAS at work… and it’s about time that you paid it a better salary and gave it some working conditions where it can work even more productively.

Your RAS is a powerful parallel processor, a relatively slow computer that can solve complex problems and arrive at novel insights, seemingly out of nowhere. The trick is to program it correctly and then give it the time and context that it needs to do that work… all while you get other stuff done.

Once your train your RAS to pay attention to something, you’ve effectively outsourced the task of thinking to your subconscious, which can work in parallel to your day-to-day (and night-to-night) activity (and dreaming).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Decide on it. Choose the idea you want to embed into your subconscious– it could be a concept, a theme, a person, a narrative, a process, a problem, an entire project or relationship — so that your RAS can go to work on it, looking for solutions and insights.
  2. Immerse in it. Consciously immerse yourself into the idea — mentally and emotionally. Start thinking about it a lot… vividly… attach strong feelings to it… do this for a while… repeatedly. The required number of hours and days of focus and repetition will vary by the quality and salience of the idea, as well as the quality of your brain and self-training efforts. You can even try a mini-immersion exercise: write or blog about something for a couple of hours, and then…
  3. Sleep on it. Consolidate the memories. The deeper layers of your brain need time for it to soak in.
  4. Walk away from it. Put yourself in a different, atypical environment — new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings — new stimuli that (a) distract your conscious mind, and (b) give your RAS a new context to begin actively scanning for the presence of your idea.
  5. Let the brain magic happen. This is usually where the lateral thinking process kicks in — at seemingly random moments, you’ll become aware of all sorts of comparisons and analogies between the thing you programmed your RAS to look for and the new things that are appearing in your changed environment. Every time you get one of these lateral connections, make sure to reward your RAS’s efforts by giving yourself a mental smile and pat on the back. Good RAS doggie.
  6. If you’ve done this for a while you’re still not getting anywhere, repeat step 1.
A idea simmering in my subconscious is like this delicious rare entrecote which I ate the other day. Its edges were briefly stewed in a rich wine-gravy reduction... the inside melted in my mouth like butter.

An idea simmering in my subconscious is like this delicious rare entrecĂ´te which I ate the other day. Its edges were briefly stewed in a rich wine-gravy reduction… the inside melted in my mouth like butter.

In many ways, the key to using your RAS productively is to be a little less productive in how you use your time — less focused on rushing through things, doing things once without reflection — and more strategic / synergistic in the different things you focus on and cycle between.

What I mean by that is… oh wait, I wrote about those things already, here and here… sort of… but not nearly as succinctly as stated in this post. Thank you, RAS.

Now to go back out there and see, hear, touch, smell and taste some new stuff.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 28, 2013, in Art, Learning, Productivity, Project Management, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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