Have you ever noticed that your focus shifts when you’re preparing to make an important decision? Let’s take buying a new car as an example. Whereas on any other day I get into my car and drive to a meeting with my attention on the natural beauty or people around me, life is very different when I’m getting ready to buy a car. Until the purchase is complete, all I see are the other vehicles on the road. “Ooh, that’s a nice one, perhaps I should look at that make.” Or, “Wow, that’s a beautiful color, I should get one of those.” The natural and human beauty that surrounds me and the music on the radio get completely overwhelmed by auto obsession.
I’m sure that you’ve experienced something similar when buying cars, or cameras, or phones, or choosing a college, or even choosing a mate. Your brain focuses in on your obsession, minimizing all other stimuli.
There’s a simple, biological reason for this phenomenon. It’s an ingenious neurological gift from Mother Nature designed to improve our survival and success.
But heed this warning: It can also be our downfall.
To achieve health, happiness, and prosperity, we must understand this system and learn to unlock its power.
You see, as our brains evolved, Mother Nature gave us spectacular computing capabilities to process incoming data. She gave us five physical senses, something we have in common with other living creatures. To the early mammals she added the limbic system, or emotional brain, conferring the ability to nurture our young and collaborate with others. Finally, she awarded humans with a massive cerebral cortex, or cognitive brain, and the gifts of thought and reason. This tremendous neurological capacity created a new challenge: data overload. Scientists estimate that we have to process several million data points at any one moment and have as many as 60,000 thoughts in a day.
Picture yourself in a massive airport or train station or market, and you can imagine the problem our powerful brains have on an ongoing basis: noise, noise, noise.
Mother Nature designed a remarkable filtering system to help us manage this flood of incoming data. This function is housed in a collection of neurological centers that are known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is clustered near the entrance to our magnificent brain and works a bit like the switch system at a large train station, channeling, filtering, and integrating the sensory messages that come into our brains. The RAS also plays a similar role in processing outgoing messages from our emotional and cognitive brains.
The primary role of the RAS is actually in moderating our levels of alertness, so it is intimately involved with regulating sleep and wakefulness. But it also has this more delicate influence on our attention and focus. The RAS decides what we actually hear and see, effectively reducing the noise to a small group of stimuli that we can handle while filtering out millions of “distractions.”
You can probably see how this system enhanced our survival in the wild, and anybody who has been in a life-threatening emergency will verify this. When our ancestors were fleeing from a charging wooly mammoth, their brains were keenly focused on their escape route, ignoring the delicate beauty and fragrance of the flowers they trampled in their hasty retreat. Similarly, when I’m preoccupied with choosing a new car, all I can see after stepping out of my front door are cars, cars, and more cars.
There is a powerful beauty in this system that we can harness for health and happiness. But there is an equally powerful danger we must avoid. The secret to this power lies in the override of the cognitive and emotional brains. You see, it’s the higher centers in our brain that tell the RAS what is important—whether positive or negative. The RAS then performs its single-minded (pardon the pun) duty of perceptual integration.
Let’s look at two different scenarios to understand the far-reaching implications of this elegant system.
Have you ever noticed how powerful your negative thoughts are? That’s because you reinforce them with the help of your RAS. Have you ever heard your own voice in your head saying, “Life is tough,” or “I’m not smart,” or “I can’t make anybody happy,” or “I don’t deserve to be healthy, or happy, or prosperous”? Well, the first place that registers these statements is your RAS. It takes careful note of these powerful seeding thoughts and then starts to select for those incoming messages that reinforce that belief…simply because you told it to. So, you selectively begin to notice that life is hard, or that you’re not smart. Your RAS effectively shows you the things that prove this belief to be true while minimizing all evidence to the contrary. And soon, your initial statement becomes a deeply held belief, reinforced by the “facts” your RAS presents to you.
I hope that you see how flawed and dangerous this can be. The good news is that you can instead choose to embrace the other end of the spectrum of possibilities. Have you ever heard your voice in your head saying, “Life is beautiful,” or “I’m always lucky,” or “I have a gift to make people happy,” or “I deserve health, and happiness, and prosperity”? When you choose to utter the positive instead of the negative, your RAS responds dutifully, focusing your attention on those data points that prove the truth in your statement while minimizing data that may dispute it, reinforcing your initial positive thoughts.
This is why gratitude is so powerful. As you articulate the list of items for which you are grateful, your RAS is eavesdropping. It gets to work and finds abundant proof that reinforces your appreciation. If you’re thankful for love, you’ll be bathed in love. If you’re appreciative of health, you’ll experience good health. If you’re grateful for friendship, you’ll be surrounded by friends.
Your future is in your own hands. The powerful gifts of positive thinking and gratitude can transform your life by unlocking the power of your RAS. Practice them consciously, introducing them into your daily routine. Start today, and remember that habits take seven weeks to become established. Use a piece of paper, a journal, or an app to capture both positive thoughts and gratitude meticulously for seven weeks. Your RAS will watch, filter, and integrate. And then you can watch your life transform for the better.