Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Noticing what I notice

Leveraging the Power of the Image - turn on your Reticular Activation System!

How do we cope in these days of information and sensory excess – that constant flow through eyes, ears, nose and touch? Even the sharpest mind can only conciously deal with a few things at a time without overloading. Fortunately, there’s a screening device in our heads called the Reticular Activation System (RAS). This group of cells in the brain filters out the 99% of unimportant data and feeds the remaining 1% to our conscious mind. RAS uses rules and criteria which we establish, deliberately or not, to determine the content of that 1% and therefore to govern what we notice.

RAS is very good at what it does. For example - have you ever suddenly seen something you hadn’t noticed before, yet it was there all along? You just bought a new car in what you thought was an unusual colour and suddenly every fourth car on the road is the same make - and the same colour - as yours. This is your filter system (RAS) in action. When something becomes important to us, we notice more of it.

As we tend to get more of what we focus on, it’s critical that the rules and priorities we give to our RAS are designed to get us what we want, instead of more of what we don’t want. We can train RAS by being concious of asking better questions.

According to Mark Wigginton, an Austin, Texas-based personal development coach "The questions you ask yourself will determine how the Reticular Activation System will respond to your search. If you ask yourself, ‘Why can’t I seem to find a job?’ your brain will hand you a list of seemingly valid reasons why you aren’t moving forward. As you bring the reasons you can’t progress to the forefront of your mind, your RAS will automatically seek out reinforcement. ‘I can’t make progress because of conflicts with my schedule, my family responsibilities, I don’t know the right people, etc.’ But if you ask yourself, ‘What one thing can I do today to move my job search forward?’ your RAS will lead you toward the results you want.”

How Do Visual Cues Work?

Visual images hold amazing power.

First, let’s look at how the brain processes information. The mind simply can’t keep up with the 36 million bits of visual data that bombard it every second so the conscious mind doesn’t bother trying. It simply passes most of the info along to be processed somewhere else. According to brain specialist Amy K Hutchens, 99% of learning is done on a non-conscious level. “That’s a fancy way of saying that vision dominates your brain activity and behaviors.” she says, “Basically, what we see can determine how we act”.

That’s good…except that what we see is also a result of what we believe. That makes more sense if we look at the missing link – what our eyes “see”, the information that is sent to the brain, must be processed and categorized somehow in order to be meaningful.

In addition to a reticular activation system, which is a physical cellular structure, each of us has a frame of reference created by among other things our life experiences, value sets, and beliefs systems. Sometimes called a mental model, this is each person’s unique lens through which they view the world. It is by testing information against this frame of reference that we create meaning for ourselves and through this lens we attempt to understand what we “see”. If the incoming information does not fit with our frame of reference, there is a good chance that we will reject it. In other words, we will only see what we already believe.

Seeing The Good Stuff

The “reticular activation system” (RAS) sorts through those millions of bits of data, making sure that you’re only aware of certain things and details you do not want to miss – those things that you have established as important - such as hearing your name in a crowd. If you are only going to get one percent of all that information, it is essential your RAS is clear on what it needs to look for and let you know about.

Unlock the Genius Within


In his recent book, “The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, James Newman, Harvard Professor and expert on the human mind, proposes that the brain was originally designed to be bicameral- meaning, we could use both sides of the brain. Somewhere along the way, he explains, the brain functions literally broke in half and we lost that ability to use both sides of the brain. Newman proposes a solution to doubling our brainpower by learning to use our Reticular Activation System. Knowing how to turn this system on is the secret of teaching your brain how to accumulate all the knowledge on a given subject you need- thus, you develop “genius like” powers, and have all the knowledge you need to become an expert, on any given subject. Bernard Baars at the Colorado Neurological Institute describes this technique as contrastive analysis. He claims that it’s possible to give the brain a framework for differentiating conscious and unconscious processing.

The Knowledge is in the Room

Our brains accumulate an amazing amount of knowledge and take in a tsunami of information every day. Your brain uses the priorities, which you consciously or unconsciously fed to it, to determine the past and present information that is most relevant to help you achieve your goals.

Todd Beeler, a highly successful NLP trainer and a sales coach, compares this function of the brain to a computer. If you are looking for information on goal setting and you do a search only in your own computer, you might find the few articles you happened to save for future reference. Handy, but you are only using a fraction of the computer’s potential. Ask the same computer to search on the internet and in a matter of seconds it will find an extraordinary amount of information on goal setting from around the world.

Your Reticular Activation System is similar to a sophisticated search engine. As we know from internet searches, the better the search criteria, the better and more relevant the information found. By actively setting your priorities – or search terms – you consciously program your RAS to focus on bringing to your attention the relevant information from a flood of sensory input. So, how do you super charge your RAS and unlock the amazing data gathering potential in all of us? Todd’s suggestions include:

1- Be as specific as possible about your challenge and create a powerful question designed to get you what you want. Remember that your RAS will understand the question as the priority. Asking “why can’t I” will find all the why-not reasons and problems. Asking “ What do I need to achieve…” will find the enabling data.
2- Describe the outcome you want in as much detail as possible and set a deadline for getting answers. Focus your RAS entirely on the ideal outcome you desire and all the good that is going to come from it. Including the benefits of the preferred future produces positive emotions that help to engage your RAS even more effectively.
3- Have faith in the process. Stay alert and open to the information you receive. You are asking for something you don’t have now so you may be challenged to do something new to get it.
4- Do something with the information you get. Follow those hunches! Have the courage to act, otherwise you are telling your RAS that this was not really a priority and weakening the conscious process.

Think about a time when it seemed that all your ducks were lining up in a row without much effort on your part. Was there a time when what you needed seemed to magically appear? Understanding how your own internal mechanisms work to support your real intention could perhaps make that happen more often. Instead of “putting it out to the Universe” put it to your reticular activation system.

Be careful what you ask for – you just may get it!




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