The Reticular Activating System is a collection of nerve cells in the brain stem and is believed to be pivotal in the part of our brain called the conscious mind. That is the part in which all of our decision making and analytical thinking occurs. In mammals the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is also associated with motivation and arousal, sleep and direction of attention.

The RAS is an interesting subject to those who are interested in getting their mind to notice more of what they want and less of what they don’t want, because it is also responsible for directing attention to our conscious mind.

We already know that the unconscious mind does not process negatives (so if someone tells you “Don’t think of the Queen!” you mind will scan through all of its resources and references and find a picture of the Queen (or the sound of her voice or some feelings you feel about the Queen) and it will have focused on it before realising that you are not supposed to be doing that, but doing something else instead. Now if instead of the Queen you were thinking “Don’t get nervous” you can expect the same process to occur. By then you’re already getting into the feeling of feeling nervous.

But here’s what you’re also doing. You are also sending a signal to your RAS to identify all of the potential opportunities that might show up during your day where that nervousness could occur. Your RAS is working like a radar to detect whatever it is you are conscious thinking about whether you want it or whether you don’t.

And the RAS isn’t just influenced by your conscious self-talk; it is also influenced by your beliefs. What this means that whatever you believe will have an impact upon what your RAS draws into your conscious awareness. If you believe that people are liars your RAS will be tuned into liar fm and seek out and identify all of the examples in your life where people are being dishonest. Your RAS will operate to fit in with what you believe and what you think is important. That means that another person can be in the same place at the same time as you but come away with a very different experience and make very different judgements. If they for example, believe people are kind to me, their RAS will be filtering the same information but choosing different sensory data to pass onto their conscious mind. That data will provide evidence of people being kind. It’s worth having a think about the experiences you are currently having in life. If they are not so good, perhaps you’ve got your RAS operating in a negative way. It could tell you a bit about your beliefs or what it is you’re saying to yourself. Interestingly, the person who believes people are kind to me will have no awareness of the examples where people were being dishonest. For them, that information simply didn’t exist. This is an important function of the RAS as it prevents us from receiving too much information and going into sensory overload. It is estimated that our nervous system is bombarded with between two million and two billion bits of sensory information every second. Life would be very confusing if you had to be aware of all of that information every second!

If the RAS is under-stimulated, we see side effects such as poor memory, little self control and lack of learning ability. When the RAS is over-stimulated, it causes a kind of hyper activity, talking too much and touching everything. This in part explains what is happening to those who have ADD and ADHD.

By Gemma Bailey