Can It Be Changed and Why You Might Want to Change It?
Deleting, distorting, and generalizing what we witness can lead to personal problems and societal issues! Did you know our brains delete, distort, and generalize all the time based on our attitudes, memories, values, and beliefs? That is not necessarily bad especially when it comes to our survival. However, it can lead to unhappiness, stress, anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression. The mechanism behind this natural process of our built-in bias is called the Reticular Activating System.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out what it believes are unnecessary pieces of information. It takes input from all your senses and decides what is important to you based on what you are doing and thinking. If it were not working, you would be exposed to so many stimuli, you would literally go crazy.
I have always been curious about why when I become interested in something like letting my hair go grey, suddenly I see beautiful grey-haired women everywhere. Now I know it was my RAS deleting pictures of brown hair women and just showing me grey-haired ladies.
More pertinent to health and happiness, the RAS is also the system that ignores information that is contrary to your belief system and seeks out information that will validate your beliefs.
“Your RAS takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it. It then sifts through the data and presents only the pieces that are important to you,” according to thought leader and German author and designer Tobias van Schneider
So how does this system of your brain help or hurt you?
“If you think you are bad at giving speeches, you probably will be. If you believe that you work efficiently, you most likely do. The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your actions,” van Schneider writes in his article If You Want It, You Might Get It. In other words, this system can really distort life if you spend your days in negative self-talk or in blame, shame, and complain mode.
You can control the RAS or it can control you. If you have a positive outlook or mindset, your RAS is working well on your behalf, but if you are prone to see the negative, this might be the time to take control of your RAS so you feel better and think more clearly.
If we recognize a natural bias toward seeing the bad in all situations, we could practice questioning that bias to get along better with people with whom we may not agree and stop focusing on all the “bad” things going on in the world. As Ashley James, a Neurolinguistic practitioner puts it, “Our words do not describe our world we live in, they determine the world we live in.”
Start Changing your RAS from a Negative Bent and See Results!
You start by challenging your negative reaction to a trigger. Instead of thinking that something negative is happening to me or will happen to me, you could say to yourself “the Universe has my back and is not conspiring against me, therefore what is the lesson in what just occurred?”
So how does this look in practice? It requires first noticing or observing when you get triggered by an event or by someone’s words or even your own negative self-talk. At that point, you might say that is my RAS trying to protect me. Should I accept what is saying or should I challenge it?
Here is another valuable approach from the HeartMath® training. Using your breath, you can start to change a negative attitude. Start by naming and identifying the initial attitude. Then choose a different attitude you would like to feel. For instance, if your initial attitude is “I am fearful,” you might replace that with an attitude like “I am peaceful.” Slow your breathing down to the count of 5 for both your in-breath and your out-breath. Focus that breath on the heart as you repeat the attitude you want. Continue breathing this way until you start to feel this new attitude.
Then ask your heart (the window to your soul) what am I supposed to learn from what just happened?
If you can, write down any insights that come to you. If no insights come then, just stay open and alert to insights that might pop up later in the day, during the night when sleeping, or even the following day when you first wake up.
How Do You Want To Spend Your Day? That is the question!
This is a practice and like all practices, the key is to practice. Practices that improve your life such as yoga, meditating, keeping a gratitude journal, drinking the right amount of water, eating nutritiously, taking your supplements have a cumulative effect. In other words, they gain potency over time.
Anything you do repeatedly will affect your Reticular Activating System. The real question is do you want to spend your day finding evidence for all the bad things you are imagining, or do you want to start imagining a better world and noticing the evidence for that? You have the power to transform your thinking and help your RAS work for you.