Jul 5, 2007

The RAS at Work

In my earlier post on goal-writing, I had provided various links. One of them was to an article which mentioned the reticular activating system (RAS) in the human brain. In the present post I will discuss the RAS.

The RAS is the part of the human brain that deals with motivations. Although there is no scientific consensus on this point yet, some people believe that one of the functions of the RAS is to direct a person’s attention towards things in his environment that are relevant to his motivations and interests. Simultaneously, the RAS will filter out things in his environment which are judged not to be relevant.

For example, suppose a man enters into a big room full of strangers, walks around for ten seconds, and then leaves the room. If you then ask him to describe all the people he just saw, he may be able to describe just a few of them. But there’s a very high chance that he will remember the sexy young lady with the big breasts and the long legs. In fact, he probably noticed her almost immediately upon entering the room, instinctively picking her out from a big crowd of faceless strangers. This is his RAS at work.

Here is another example. You take your time to read the newspapers on a leisurely Sunday. When you're done, you would have read, say, fifteen full articles in detail (because these articles were interesting to you). However, there could be another twenty articles which you had skipped completely, because they were not interesting to you and you did not want to read them at all.


Now, if you were then asked to put aside your newspaper and say something about those 20 articles, you would struggle. You would not even know what it is that you cannot remember. The funny thing is that when you were going through the newspapers, at some unconscious level you MUST have noticed these 20 articles. Otherwise how were you able to judge that they were uninteresting and should be skipped?


What happened here is that your RAS automatically filtered those 20 articles away and out of your field of perception. Your unconscious / subconscious mind took note of those 20 articles, decided that you shouldn’t waste your time on them and directed your attention elsewhere. Your conscious mind played no part in this. In effect, you had no choice. Therefore you can neither remember anything about the 20 articles you skipped nor understand why you had skipped them.

Most of us know what we like, and what we are interested in – therefore we know what are the kind of things we notice. What we don’t know is what we don’t notice. What we don’t notice is probably a heck of a lot of things. But that’s mostly unconscious to us.

That’s because our RAS works on the basis of our subconscious / unconscious mind. A heterosexual man does not have to tell his RAS, “Please direct my attention to sexy young ladies in my physical proximity.” A newspaper reader interested in professional golf and Australian politics does not have to tell his RAS, “Please direct my attention to newspaper articles about professional golf and Australian politics.” It all happens automatically.

Since the RAS operates on the basis of our subconscious / unconscious mind, the beliefs and thoughts that we hold at these levels in effect decide what we perceive about the world - every minute, every hour, day after day, month after month, year after year.

So for instance, if you subconsciously believe that you are a useless idiot, your RAS will constantly direct your attention towards all available evidence and events in your physical environment that indicate or suggest that you are a useless idiot.

If you subconsciously believe that hard work is the only way to succeed (and you want to succeed), your RAS will constantly direct your attention such that the only route to success that you can perceive is through hard work.

If you subconsciously believe that it is very possible to make lots of money, your RAS will constantly direct your attention such that you keep perceiving many possible opportunities to make a lot of money.

If you subconsciously believe that you are great at solving difficult problems, then your RAS will constantly direct your attention such that you keep perceiving difficult problems, AND keep perceiving great ways to solve them.

If you subconsciously believe that you are too young / too old / too weak / too poor / too lazy / too unlucky / too disadvantaged / too busy to do _____________, then your RAS will constantly direct your attention towards perceiving evidence that you are indeed too young / too old / too weak / too poor / too lazy / too unlucky / too disadvantaged / too busy to do _____________.



As I’ve said before, your reality is basically (a) what you perceive about reality, and (b) your interpretation of your perceptions. In the end, your reality is totally constructed out of your thoughts. Things which are deeply against your deepest beliefs will simply not be perceptible by you.

For example, the staunch atheist will look around the universe, the stars, the sun, the seas and the moon and say, “I cannot see any evidence at all of the existence of God!”. While the religious believer will look around the same universe, the stars, the sun, the seas and the moon and say, “I see God everywhere! What kind of fool one must be, not to be able to see this!”. Both of them are absolutely correct, within their respective realities.

There is no escape! Your mind is your universe. Change your mind, and you change your __________.

7 comments:

Jon said...

Mr Wang,

I think your view is actually quite well accepted in the scientific community.

For eg, in most economic models, two different individuals can have a completely different interpretation/view of the same event/observation, and yet both can be considered "rational" so long as each of them are interpreting the observation according to their own "priors" (ie, belief).

That's why the term "realistic view of the world" is not as objective as it may appears.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that your mind is your universe and that each of us through thoughts, and expectation create our own universe, our own reality. I thought you might appreciate the analogy below :

"When the artist paints a painting, you can look at it and say, "Ah, the artist was in a certain frame of mind," or, " Look at the dull colors and the dreary landscape," or, "Look at the wild colors and the fantastic forms," or, "See, there is no form, and yet there is marvelous vitality." And so are each of you artists, and you create the world that you know. And when you look at the world, you know that you can say, "Look, this is what I have created! And if you do not like what you see, then there is no point in ripping apart the painting, or ripping apart the framework of your life. Instead, you change your pigments. And in this case, your pigments are your thoughts and your imagination. And then you change your painting."

Extracted from The Seth Material.

Misome.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Mr. Wang,

Thanks for this insightful post on neuroscience! It's one of my favourite topics.

The RAS is the part of the human brain that deals with motivations. Although there is no scientific consensus on this point yet, some people believe that one of the functions of the RAS is to direct a person’s attention towards things in his environment that are relevant to his motivations and interests. Simultaneously, the RAS will filter out things in his environment which are judged not to be relevant...

...What happened here is that your RAS automatically filtered those 20 articles away and out of your field of perception. Your unconscious / subconscious mind took note of those 20 articles, decided that you shouldn’t waste your time on them and directed your attention elsewhere. Your conscious mind played no part in this. In effect, you had no choice. Therefore you can neither remember anything about the 20 articles you skipped nor understand why you had skipped them.


The RAS is part of the brainstem. While it is required for consciousness, you are right that it is unlikely to play a major role in the formation of consciousness.

Let me use an over-simplified illustration for readers not familiar with brain science.

Imagine the brainstem is like the power plug of a TV.

If you spoil the power plug you will not see pictures. But the power plug is not the system that produce the picture itself.

The pictures are produced by signals from the environment (radiowave) and the TV screen system (CRT or LCD).

The main players in consciousness are in the cortex. Very likely a system that includes the frontal and parietal cortex.

However I think that you have over-extended the capabilities of the RAS, which mainly deals with "sleepin', breathin' and heartbeatin'".

As for screening newspapers, you've made a good observation.

Still, both conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind are involved. For many years, neuroscientists believed in a "bottom-up" approach to perception.

The discovery of the cocktail party effect and operant learning provided clues that perception operates via feedback loops. So there is also "top-down" regulation.

Operant learning is important for selective screening of information. At least in the beginning, the cortex is heavily involved in perceiving and ignoring irrelevant information. As the brain adapts, less cortical involvement is required and it feels more "automatic".

You have to work hard to learn how to work smart.

If you subconsciously believe that you are great at solving difficult problems, then your RAS will constantly direct your attention such that you keep perceiving difficult problems, AND keep perceiving great ways to solve them.

As I mentioned before, affirmation can be a good way to encourage yourself and focus your energies, but the success rate still depends on a number of factors, including effort, skill and luck.

If you only look at success stories, then it appears as if strong self-belief is the cause of success. For example Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

However when you include failure stories, the story becomes less clear. Consider the stories of Jack Tramiel (Commodore) and Sir Clive Sinclair.

Did they not mindhack themselves enough? If not, how did they become multi-millionaires?

Did they somehow mindhack themselves into failing when they were at the peak of their careers?

Who would want to do that?

The subconscious is important, yes, but so is the physical world.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Imagine the brainstem is like the power plug of a TV.

If you spoil the power plug you will not see pictures. But the power plug is not the system that produce the picture itself."


What? You mean it is scientifically proven that consciousness needs a brain?! See my latest post.


"Who would want to do that?"

Actually there are more difficult questions that you could ask, concerning negative events ... But I will deal with these points in future posts.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I say!

Someone here has read the Seth books. :)

I thought they were banned in Singapore. ;)

Anonymous said...

"Someone here has read the Seth books. :)

I thought they were banned in Singapore. ;) "

Aha, but I am not in Singapore. ;>

Misome.

An ENTP said...

Hello Mr INTJ, love your posts; very thought provoking. I see you have been trying to convince the skeptics with regards to thoughts affect reality but im guessing this post probably was the most sensible one that summed it all up.