“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”
– Lyall Watson, biologist
Did you ever wonder why some things catch your attention and others don’t?
Remember the time you decided to buy a car? Once you decided what kind of car you wanted, all of a sudden, you started seeing that kind of car on the streets. Were they there before and you just didn’t pay attention to them?
A pregnant woman will start noticing other pregnant women. Your new house is close to railroad tracks, yet after a few days, you don’t hear the trains anymore.
What is it that provokes your attention?
At the base of the brain where it connects to the spinal chord is a region known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS acts as a newspaper editor. Editors make decisions regarding which stories get big headlines, page one treatment, and which items wind up buried on page sixteen.
The RAS receives thousands of messages each second. Everything you see, hear, smell, feel and touch is a message entering your brain. The Reticular Activating System sifts through all these messages and decides which ones will get page one treatment – that is, arouse the brain.
The largest portion of the brain is the cerebrum. This is the center for cognition or thought. Deep within the central portion of the brain are the subsystems that are triggered by emotions. When a signal gets through the “editor” (Reticular Activating System) and arrives at the cerebrum, the brain turns on thoughts, emotions or both.
Even though the cerebrum is the center for high level thought, it is unresponsive unless the reticular formation sends a signal to begin the data processing.
Here’s the hard part.
What causes some messages to get through the filter and others to be blocked out?
One of the things we’ve learned from working with entrepreneurs is that you tend to pay attention to the things that are important to you at the moment. If your currently dominant thoughts are about creating a new brochure, you’ll start seeing other brochures. You’ll hear conversations about brochures. You’ll pick up ideas relating to brochures and even notice colors that would be attractive for the new brochure.
In other words, the Reticular Activating System will pass through anything even remotely related to the important issue – the new brochure.
From a practical point of view, this means that, if you want to solve a problem or achieve a goal, keep it at the top of your mind. Think about it, talk about it, write about it and imagine it completed. This is one of the reasons why affirmations work so well and why it is important to review your goals frequently.
Some people will keep an idea at “top of mind” by creating a notebook of pictures, cut from magazines that reflect their idea or their desired end result. This “image book” helps the visualization process, keeps the brain focused on the important issue and triggers the RAS.
Since it is possible to turn on the brain, is it also possible to turn it off?
There are three common situations where your brain is more than likely to shut down.
One of the ways to turn off the brain involves the use of conceptual conflicts. Ironically, conceptual conflict can also turn on your brain and stimulate creative thought, but only if you have been successful in resolving small amounts of conflict in similar situations. Such a background will have provided you with a reservoir of confidence you can tap regarding the new question.
However, the insecure person may look at the difference between the expected outcome and the real result and sigh: “I’m wrong again. I can’t do this.” If the problem appears unsolvable or out of reach, you may just give up before you ever get started.
Have you ever decided to clean the garage, but after inspecting the area, decided to take a nap? Have you committed yourself to a night of preparation for a big presentation, but once you scanned the material and noticed how overwhelmingly difficult it seems, decided to do other tasks that were long overdue?
These are classic examples of flight behavior. Despite your good intentions of cleaning or preparing, you gave up before you started. The tasks were so large that you didn’t know where to begin. Was your brain stimulated? Yes, but it was so over-stimulated that it shut down, and the outward behavior may have been physical. You find yourself very tired:
“I’ll clean the garage after I take a nap.”
You might even get sick: “I was so nervous about the presentation that I got nauseous.”
To avoid shutting down your brain from overstimulation, break a large or difficult project into several steps then tackle the project a step at a time.
The more popular term for this condition is boredom. Whenever a behavior is repeated to the extent that it is habitual, the brain shuts down. Shouting at a child to “Sit down and shut up” will grab their attention and they will respond for a while, but if you choose to begin every day with that command, the child will suddenly “go deaf” and not even hear you.
Closely allied with the repetition of behavior is the familiarity of the subject matter. When you announce to your team that the next day will be devoted to smile training for customer service, they greet you with a moan, “smile training again!”
The familiar is usually not a great motivator. Perhaps the key to interest is making the familiar seem different. For example, setting up role-play situations where your team members get to act out the part of customer and service representative in a variety of situations.
Try something new. Don’t fall asleep in your comfort zone.
As we have seen, there is a thin line between the actions that turn the brain on and off. By taking advantage of how your brain works, you can
- Increase your creativity,
- Reduce boredom,
- Boost recognition of opportunities and
- Accelerate achievement of your goals.
Where do you start?
Write down the five most important outcomes that you want to achieve in the coming year. Put this paper in a convenient place where you can read it every day. This affirmation of your preferred future will keep your Reticular Activating System working for you, filtering in the sights, sounds, ideas and people to help you get there.
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