Overview of the reticular activating system (RAS) of the human brain
I would like to confess one of my pet peeves. I am bothered when science is misrepresented in popular culture. That’s it, I’ve come clean. I love science. Usually, I just grump to myself. For example, when I’m watching a science fiction movie where a space ship explodes in outer space… why is it so loud? In the vacuum of space, how did the sound waves travel to my ear? There is no sound in a vacuum. Also, what’s with the exploding space ship anyway? In most circumstances, wouldn’t a spacecraft in space implode? As the artificial atmosphere vented, wouldn’t the ship’s structure crumble like a beer can on a drunken cowboy’s forehead?
Four out of five dentists choose brand X. Nine out of ten doctors recommend Product Y. Who? Under what circumstances are these statistics postulated? That’s not the science of statistics, that’s finding statistics to help sell your brand X or product Y. (I know a lot of doctors, and from my vantage point, 9 out of 10 doctors think the tenth doctor is a jerk.)
I’ve had patients concerned that their hands would grow if they applied breast enhancement cream without wearing plastic gloves. (There is no safe cream that will grow breast tissue.) Other patients have asked if penis enhancement pills work. When I say no, I’ve been told, “It must, they sell the pills.”
When it comes to the common understanding of the human brain, the public is confused. At least once a month someone tells me, “You only use 10 percent of your brain.” That’s simply wrong. We use all of our brain.
Weekly, a teenager in my office tells me that they are great at multitasking. This same teen tends to be a solid “D” student.
The reality is that the brain cannot multitask. [28, 29, 30] The brain can only focus on one activity at a time. This may seem contrary to your experience. I once saw a clown juggle while playing a harmonica. You are reading, and breathing, and digesting, and scanning your environment for new sounds. All that is brain multitasking. But, the brain cannot pay attention to two things at one time. For example, do homework and watch TV. The TV may be good background noise for you to study by, but if you know what is going on, on the TV, you are watching TV. If you know what is going on with your homework, you are doing homework. The learning part of your brain is an amazing single task organ. [31, 32]
When a person is “multitasking” the brain takes a few hundredths of a second to switch to the next task that it then focuses on. Each refocusing takes a few hundredths of a second. That is very fast, but it has its drawbacks. If the refocusing uses different parts of the brain, then each switch also means that the brain needs to re-access the rules for dealing with each task. The part of your brain that you use for math is different than the part used for feelings. Often, it takes minutes to get back up to speed when switching between intensive tasks. If this isn’t inconvenient enough, your memory also gets affected.
One evening, my wife and I were cooking dinner together and having a very pleasant conversation. Our five-year old son ran into the kitchen and interrupted us. He excitedly exclaimed, “On Tuesdays you get mashed potatoes and aardvarks!” He laughed in our general direction and ran off.
We looked at each other and attempted to go back to our pleasant conversation. Neither of us could recall what we had been talking about. We both knew we were enjoying the conversation, but never remembered what we were talking about. Our son’s forced refocusing of our attention wiped out both of our working (short-term) memories. [33, 34. 35] (Kids have that effect on their parents.)
If you are switching between known tasks, like washing the dishes, listening to the radio, and watching the kids do their homework in the next room; you can easily switch focus from task to task. But, if you are trying to learn something new, like how to calculate mortgage amortization while listening to the radio, and watching the kids do their homework in the next room, you’re setting yourself up to do each poorly. Also, you are likely to become short tempered.
Brain research is in its infancy. But what we do know has been tested and retested.  With a little insight into how your brain works, you can substantially increase your goal completion rate.
You and a friend are sitting in your kitchen talking. After a bit, your friend says, “Doesn’t your refrigerator bother you?”
“My refrigerator?” you ask.
“Yeah, it’s so loud.”
“Yeah, it’s driving me nuts.”
In all honesty, you hadn’t noticed the refrigerator’s compressor cycling on. You were used to it.
So, how come you didn’t notice the fridge? The answer has to do with a part of your brain called the reticular activating system (RAS).  The reticular activating system is comprised of the reticular formation and all of its connections. Working constantly from the core of the brainstem, the reticular activating system plays a major role in keeping you alert. See Figure 9.
Figure 9: The Reticular Activating System (RAS)
Your reticular activating system allows you to filter external stimulation. According to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “We filter around 2 million bits of information per second down to 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information.”  In milliseconds, your brain factors down a huge amount of information into its usable, essential five to nine bits of information. This occurs, second after second, throughout your life. Without your reticular activating system, all your sensory inputs would have equal value. So, a wildebeest attacking you, and the blue of the sky would be of equal importance to you. Which means you would most likely get stomped to death.
Your reticular activating system keeps track of all of your sensory stimulation (input) and prioritizes it for you, without you consciously having to think about each input.
In the kitchen with your friend, your reticular activating system didn’t bother you about the refrigerator compressor, because your RAS didn’t perceive that you were in any danger. Your friend’s reticular activating system didn’t know what to make of your noisy fridge, so it kept forcing your friend’s brain to think about it, driving him nuts. Have you ever been distracted to homicidal thoughts because someone was repeatedly clicking a pen? Your reticular activating system kept nudging your thoughts saying, “What’s that sound? What’s that sound?” The offending pen-clicking-friend’s RAS notices the pen click and says, “I know what that is, I know what that is…” and assigns the noise a very low priority.
Your reticular activating system works for you, standing vigil throughout your life.
The lawyer in my building was telling a story about his new car. “I’ve only owned it a week, and I’m seeing the exact same color and model all over town.” I didn’t tell him, but his reticular activating system was pointing out the cars to him. His RAS was saying, “You’ve been thinking about cars a lot lately, (goal) so I’ll point out the kind of cars you seem most interested in.”
A mom was concerned that while she was out of town, her husband wouldn’t hear the kids at night. She said, “He’s such a deep sleeper a formation of howitzers wouldn’t wake him.” I assured her that dad was up to the challenge, so she reluctantly agreed to let him prove himself.
A few days later, the dad told me, “I can barely sleep. I don’t know why, but every little sound wakes me up.”
You and I know what’s going on, the dad’s reticular activating system “knows” that mom is not home and keeps alerting dad to the noises of the kids. When mom returns home, dad’s RAS will again lower the nocturnal kid sound vigil to a low priority.
When we make a goal we activate our reticular activating system to search the environment for anything related to our goal. For example, if I’m in an airport, and someone behind me calls out “Bill”, my reticular activating system alerts me, and makes me turn around. According to my RAS, “Bill” is close enough to “Phil” in a noisy airport to warrant further investigation. So, there I am, trying to figure out who is waving at me, while playing the last few seconds of my auditory memory tape. “Oh, he said, ‘Bill.’” I tell myself. “I’m sure glad I didn’t wave.”
When you set a goal for yourself, your reticular activating system will point out things that may be of use to you.
If you are house hunting, you notice all the For Sale signs. Interested in a new car? New car ads seem to be everywhere. Hungry while out and about? Restaurants appear on every street corner. They’re always there, but now you notice them.
Russell was an energetic man in his mid-forties. For almost twenty years he had been selling business insurance. He consulted with me because he was concerned about the bickering in his office between employees who had been long-term friends. After meeting with everyone, it turned out the bickering was due to a low level fear that had permeated the office. For years, Russell’s insurance business had grown steadily. But, over the last year, business was down just a little. In addition to the decrease in new clients, Russell’s business was really a family business. Every employee had a child close to high school graduation. The whole office was very aware that college bills were in their future.
After brainstorming with the group about how to get new clients, it was obvious to them that “they had tried everything.” So, to add levity, I asked them if they had used their reticular activating system.
After explaining about the reticular activating system I set up a test. The eight people from the firm and I walked around the neighborhood, each holding a steno pad. As we walked, the goal was to talk about each business we crossed paths with. They were to take notes about what they knew about the business:
This lead to secondary and tertiary questions such as:
After walking around the block, we ended up back at Russell’s office. The group was all talkative and happy. After we all sat down, I asked them to go over their notes and make contact with some people they had lost touch with. I emphasized that the goal was to “make contact” not to “sell”. “I was thinking of you, and was wondering how you were doing?”
After two weeks, I met with the insurance people again. Each enthusiastically told me about going out to lunch with someone or running into someone else. At the end of the month Russell reported 11 new clients.
“It is kind of magic.” Russell said, “Once you suggested we think about people we know, I started seeing them all over town.” he said. “I was at the high school basketball game, and must have said five times, ‘I was thinking about you the other day as I walked around the block… what are you up to?’”
When you set a goal for yourself, your reticular activating system gets its marching orders. “Inform me of stuff in my environment that may help me get to my goal.”
I was teaching a seminar for people who wanted to make mid-life career changes. Most of the attendees were financially comfortable professionals who did not feel emotional fulfillment in their present career.
During a break, an attorney asked me how his reticular activating system could help him find new divorce work. He explained that he was bored to tears doing corporate litigation and he wanted a little action.
I asked him to tell me what his ideal future client looked like. What kind of problem would they be having that his services would be needed? I suggested that he write down his answers and put some time into thinking about “who his client would be.”
When we returned from lunch, the attorney shared that the accountant sitting next to him in the seminar was looking for a divorce attorney. He had his first client. As it turned out, he noticed that the accountant was sad after a phone call in the hall. He asked if he was OK and the accountant told him his problems.
Let’s test your RAS. You may not have noticed that in the FedEx logo there is a giant arrow.
There is a white arrow snugly placed between the E and the X. Now that you’re aware of it, I suspect that you will notice it for weeks. When a FedEx truck passes by, you will probably want to see the arrow again. The arrow has always been there, but now it is something your RAS “thinks” you want pointed out to you.
Stan told me that after his girlfriend and he broke up, he had to stop listening to the radio. He was amazed that so many songs reminded him of his girlfriend. Stan’s reticular activating system was doing its job, making Stan aware of potential danger in his world. I expect country western stations would be the worst. From what I can tell almost every song is about a relationship with either: your girl, your momma or your truck.
As we discussed in Understanding Goal Setting, Part 2, goals are a lot like eating elephants.
“How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, “One bite at a time.”
(If you try to eat an elephant all at once, by hauling it up with a crane and dropping it whole into you mouth. You’re one smooched diner. But, if you carve it up you can get it done. If you bite off more than you can chew, you spit it out and cut the piece smaller. Then get back to chewing.)
The seemingly simple task of cleaning off your desk so you can start to get organized, tends to derail people before they really get started. So, let’s use this example as a restarting point.
You have a pile, of say, fifty sheets of paper in a semi neat stack before you. You think to yourself, “This is a thankless job, but it needs to be done. But, it will take days! Let’s get a cup of coffee instead.”
No! Stop! Get back in here! It’s only a stack of paper. It’s not nuclear waste. The perceived problem with the stack of paper is the sum of its parts. If the stack were last year’s completed tax paperwork, the task would be quite simple. Place the stack in an appropriately sized box; mark the box with the content list, and then store the box in a safe place. Finding the box, or a marker, or a location to store it, may be problematic, but still only a few potential problems.
However, with a stack of fifty sheets of paper you could have hundreds or thousands of decisions to make. Some decisions could be fairly easy. The first sheet is a recipe from a food magazine that you want to try. You want to put it with your other recipes at home, but you’re at work. So, you hold it in your left hand. The second piece of paper is your Aunt Mabel’s phone number. You need this because you need the phone number of Aunt Mabel’s daughter, Dora. You have a question for Dora, but don’t know how to get in touch with her directly. So now you have a recipe in your left hand and a phone number in your right. Only two sheets in and you have run out of hands. You need a procedure for how to deal with prioritizing this job.
You need to ask yourself “What is the next action?”
Then you judge the answer by time. If it takes less than two minutes, do it now. If more than two minutes, appoint it to be done at a more appropriate time.
Let’s re-attack the pile of papers again. Holding the recipe you decide your goal. You want to put the recipe in the cookbook to the left of your toaster oven. The problem is that you are at work, and your cookbook is at home.
“What’s the next action?” you ask yourself.
“I’ll put it in my wallet and unite it with the cookbook when I get home.” But, how well will this work? “What’s the next action?” you ask yourself again. “I’ll call myself at home and leave the message: ‘Put away the recipe that is in your wallet.’” Great that took one minute and 18 seconds.
You pick up the next sheet of paper, Auntie Mabel’s phone number. This is not simply a phone number, it is the tip of an iceberg.
Earlier, we were looking at incorrect and correct goal setting statements. One of them was:
Incorrect: Tires are expensive. How can I afford them!
Correct: I will figure out how to afford new tires before the snows come.
“I will figure out how to afford new tires before the snows come.” This is the tip of the iceberg! The fact that you need new tires is just that, a fact. But how to get them involves a bunch of small decisions, just like Aunt Mabel’s phone number. Let me explain.
Your cousin Dora told your sister that she had a $100 off coupon for a set of four tires. Your sister didn’t know if Dora was going to use the coupon, but for weeks you have been thinking, “If I can get $100 off the cost of a set of tires, that would be great! But, you don’t have your cousin’s phone number, and neither did your sister. So, you need to call Aunt Mabel. She will have Dora’s phone number. Can this be done in the next two minutes? No. Aunt Mabel is at work until six. You will have to call her tonight.
You appoint Aunt Mabel in your daily planner:
6:45 Call Aunt Mabel (555-1234) Get Dora’s Number
6:50 Call Dora ________________ about tire coupon
---------The space ^^^ is for the # you get from Aunt Mabel.
You did it! You can now throw away the piece of paper with Aunt Mabel’s phone number. Only 48 pieces of paper left in this stack.
I ask myself “What’s the next action?” thousands of times each day. I like to be in control of my goals. So what happens if Aunt Mabel says, “I’ll be seeing Dora on Saturday, I’ll have her call you.”
That is very kind of Aunt Mabel, but I am 100 percent responsible for how I deal with my world. If I let Aunt Mabel carry my goal, I’m giving up a lot of control over my destiny. Most people would let Aunt Mabel contact Dora for them. But not me … let me explain.
Mr. Najdorf worked as middle management in a busy Human Resources Department. He complained that he got delayed regularly because someone else in the department didn’t complete their task on time. In his last performance review he was marked down for missing deadlines.
“It’s not my fault, but I get blamed,” he explained. “This past week, a temp worker was late with her research numbers, and I got called on the carpet for it.”
I explained about 100 percent self-responsibility and gave him the following example.
I called my insurance agent to ask a question about dental insurance.
“Pen Insurance, Don speaking.”
“Hi Don, Phil Copitch here, I know you’re busy but I need specific numbers for the dental insurance plan you mailed to me.”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll have to track them down for you.
“Great, what is the time frame that you need to get back to me?
“Back to you? Ah… how about tomorrow morning?”
“Great, thanks. I’ll write on my planner that you will get back to me by noon tomorrow. I appreciate that. Thanks. Bye.”
I continued, “I find that when I let the other person tell me what they can do for me, and then I tell them that I am writing it down, they deliver.”
Mr. Najdorf was skeptical. “What happens if the insurance man doesn’t get back to you tomorrow morning?”
“I wasn’t kidding, I wrote it down.” I explained. “So at noon I call Don and ask why he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. I make sure that I am matter of fact, not accusatory. I am always polite.”
I continued, “Most of the time, professionals will do what they say they will do. Especially if they know you wrote it down and are keeping a kind of scorecard. I like to keep in control of my own projects. So for example, if Don had said, ‘as soon as I can’. Then I would appoint a time to call him if I hadn’t heard from him.”
“Sure Don, are you in the office tomorrow?”
“Great, I’m writing in my planner to call you at noon tomorrow, if I haven’t heard from you. Talk to you then. Bye.”
“If Don had said that it would take a week, I would still do the same thing, but appoint it out seven days.I keep control of my project, but I keep others accountable for their parts.”
Still skeptical, Mr. Najdorf asked, “I have no real power over my co-workers. I’m the project leader, but I can’t fire them. They don’t have to listen to me.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But I still suggest you make them accountable. When we write stuff down it becomes more powerful. After a co-worker agrees to deliver a vital part of your project data, say next Tuesday, write it down.”
I suggested that Mr. Najdorf send a confirmation e-mail (note) to them. Such as:
Just a note to thank you for your help with the XYZ report. I am happy to know that you will get me the XYZ data on or before xx/xx/xx at 5 pm. I appreciate your dedication to the completion of this project.
CC: Project XYZ File
Part of getting our goals met is staying on target. We are talking about your goals. You need to manage them.
When you get stuck… ask yourself:
“What is the next action?”
Incorrect: The kitchen needs painting.
Correct: I want to paint the kitchen.
I will write a list of what I will need to paint the kitchen. I will appoint it in my day planner. I will allot 2 hours to go to the hardware store within the next five days.
Incorrect: I should have invented that.
Correct: I want to be an inventor.
I will write my ideas down. I will keep a small note pad in my back pocket at all times. On Saturday I will go to the library and get a book on how to invent.
Incorrect: Sally should listen to me because I’m her parent.
Correct: I want to be able to communicate with Sally.
“What is the next action?”
I will call Sue and ask for advice on how to talk with Sally.
Incorrect: I need to stop smoking.
Correct: I want to stop smoking
I will smoke three less cigarettes today.