The Reticular Activating System – The Sniffer Dog Of Your Brain

Reticular Activating System

Our brains are able to do incredible things. Our senses are bombarded with a phenomenal amount of information and it’s up to our brains to filter and process the important bits from the rest of the junk. That is a seriously complex task. The little part of your brain responsible for stopping your senses being overloaded with information, amongst other things, is called the reticular activating system. Understanding what this part of your brain does and learning to use it well can help you to become more effective at achieving your goals.

What Is The Reticular Activating System?

Before I tell you too much about the reticular activating system, I have a little game to show you what it does. Don’t worry, this is really easy, it’ll take less than a minute and you can do it wherever you are now. It’s important that you follow each step at a time, without looking ahead to the future steps, ok? Here we go:

Step 1) Spend ten seconds (and only ten seconds!) looking around you, trying to find all of the red objects you can see. Count them all. Ten seconds. Go.

Step 2) STOP! I’m going to have to trust that you didn’t cheat and that you only spent ten seconds counting. Hopefully by now, you’ll have a pretty good estimate of the number of red objects around you.

Step 3) Now, try and answer this question: How many blue objects are there around you?


Off Duty Sniffer Dog

I’m guessing you don’t know how many blue objects there are around you (unless you’ve had another cheeky look around). Why should you know about blue? A few seconds ago it wasn’t important to know about blue objects. Red was the only colour that mattered, and so you focused solely on finding red.

This is where your reticular activating system comes in. It’s the part of your brain that looks after your focus. Like a sniffer dog, you tell it what you want to find and off it goes. It filters out information it considers to be useless (like the blue objects you saw around you when you were looking for red) and concentrates on finding what you’ve told it to look for.

How is this helpful?

Your reticular activating system isn’t only used to seek out objects of a particular colour. It’s working all the time to seek out the information you’re looking for, whether you know what you’ve told it to find or not.

Because of it’s incredible power to find what you’re looking for (what you focus on), your reticular activating system plays a huge part in lots of areas of your life.

A few weeks ago I made a switch from focusing on feeling tired in the morning, to focusing on the things I had to look forward to in my day. In that simple switch, I reprogrammed my reticular activating system. I told it to find things to look forward to, rather than evidence to prove how tired I was. With that simple shift, I felt less physically tired. I changed what I focussed on, and so I changed which information my reticular activating system filtered out.

The same principle can be used for almost anything and is why setting goals can be so effective. If you’re focused on achieving your goal, your reticular activating system works overtime to find things that match. It filters out information which doesn’t support your goal, and helps you notice the things that do.

Muhammad Ali

There are people who use all sorts of tools to help them visualise what achieving their goals would be like, making it easier for their reticular activating system to help them along the way. Vision boards, pre-emptive acceptance speeches and role play can all help (Muhammad Ali was a big advocate of this way of thinking).

It can be very easy to focus on the negatives – on the things you don’t want – by whinging, moaning and complaining. But that only programmes the negatives into your reticular activating system, making you notice those things more. The real power comes when you make the switch to intentionally focus on the things you want. Once you do that, the sniffer dog in your brain gets to work sifting for the things which will help you get what you want amongst all the other information your senses are bringing in.

Give it a go. Focus on something you want this week – something really positive. Notice what changes when you do.

5 Comment(s)

  1. December 4, 2012 at 3:15 am

    Wow, Chris. I guess I can now say, Last week I was really giving my reticular activating system a go. I was looking for a resource on mindfulness and sought the advice of a few trusted friends. Instead of waiting to order, receive, and read the books before starting, I decided just to sit and begin to focus on my breath. I already feel the difference.

    I am going to tell my husband CJ about how you overcame your morning tiredness. He will be forever grateful.

    • December 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm

      Hi Tammy,

      I quite often catch myself getting busy trying to find answers and solutions without taking a moment to really focus. Like with the tiredness thing, I’d just been carrying on for ages feeling rubbish every morning. It took a friend to prompt me to make the shift. It’s amazing what happens when you’re prepared to slow down and let your body take over.

  2. May 8, 2013 at 2:10 am

    Very good job Chris! You described the RAS and its implications in an approachable way!

  3. Kelsey

    July 17, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    So well said, thank you for explaining it in such a way I can use it in my own life! Thanks again!

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