Reticular Activating System: Intention in Attention

Have you ever learnt a new word, and suddenly start seeing and hearing it everywhere? Or when you purchase a product, and suddenly start noticing it all over the place? Easy to spot a yellow car, if all you think about is a yellow car.

You can thank your Reticular Activating System (RAS) for this. RAS refers to a bundle of nerves located on the brain stem. Much like most other parts of the brain, the RAS is responsible for a host of tasks; sleep-wake transition, wakefulness, and behaviour. But, in the context we are looking at today, the RAS also tunes our attention, regulates behaviour, and drives motivation.

When you’re in a crowded room, and you snap to attention at the sound of your name or something similar, it’s because the RAS is attuned to your own name. So, what does it mean for you?

The relationship between attention and motivation

The RAS is a guard point between your senses and what comes through to your awareness. It makes decisions on what stimuli make it through and get processed. Our brain is not always processing every piece of sensory information! This is a survival mechanism because at any given point in time, only some of the information our brain is receiving is relevant.
When you’re in a meeting, what another colleague is saying is more important than what the colour of the table or chair is, or what the floor feels like beneath your feet.

How does this relate to motivation? The RAS attempts to “automate” most behavioural responses. Through attention, it creates pathways of autonomic responses. The first time you drive to work, you pay a lot of attention to each turn and the time it takes to get there. A year in, you zone out and drive yourself to work without thinking twice. That’s the RAS slowly automating behaviour as it is familiar you have more mental space to grow. This means you don’t always have to burn through your attention reserves just to get to work!

Our behaviours work the same way. The RAS decides the information that is relevant and only lets through enough to automate the driving process. If you drive your car in France, you will feel similar to how you did the first time you learnt to drive – shaky, looking at everything with rapt attention. Your RAS does not have any information to know what to filter, so it has to let everything through, stressing you out! All of this is driven because you know you need to pay attention to keep yourself safe. The RAS reinforces what is going on in our subconscious mind and tunes our attention to match.

So, how can you benefit from this? Setting your resolve, the RAS will focus on people, information, and opportunities that will help you achieve the resolve. If you really start to think about getting a dog, what it would take, how it would affect your life both positively and negatively, you will tune in to the right information to get you a dog!
This is yet another way that we can use our brain chemistry to benefit us in behaviour change. If you were to focus on a goal, begin the fitness journey, clean up your diet, wake up sooner, your RAS will kick into action to allow you to focus on opportunities to enable this change.