All of our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, gather information and send this information for processing to our brains. Our brains receive thousands of pieces of information every second. This is where your reticular activating system (RAS) comes in, your RAS is a small group of cells at the base of your brain stem. Its function is to act like a sorting office, evaluating the incoming information and prioritizing that information in the form of messages that need your attention.
Part of the problem with people’s ability to learn and retain information is physical and hereditary. It is because of a switch in your brain called the Reticular Activating System, and most people are unaware it even exists. The Reticular Activating System does not just impact only a few people; it controls and dominates every one of them but certainly in different ways and on different levels.
The Reticular Activating System plays a significant role in determining whether a person can learn and remember well or not and also whether they are highly motivated or bored easily. It is a loose network of neurons and neural fiber that is connected at its base to the spinal cord and runs up through the brain stem to the mid-brain. It is the center of control for other parts of the brain involved in learning, self-control or inhibitions and motivation. In short, it is the attention center of the brain, and it is the switch that turns your brain on and off. When functioning properly, it provides the connections that are needed for the processing and learning of information, plus the ability to stay focused on the correct task.
If the Reticular Activating System doesn’t stimulate the neurons of the brain as much as it should, that is when people have difficulty learning, poor memory, lack of attention or self-control. If the Reticular Activating System over stimulates the brain, then that is when people become hyperactive, talk too much and become too restless. The Reticular Activating System must be activated to normal levels for the rest of the brain to function as it should. That is why many people are prescribed Ritalin and other such stimulant medications because it helps control the amount of stimulation to the brain.
The Reticular Activating System is best known as a filter because it sorts out what is important information that needs to be paid attention to and what is unimportant and can be ignored. Without this filter, we would all be over stimulated and distracted by noises from our environment around us. As an example, let’s just say you were a mother who has a baby sleeping in the next room, and you live right next to a busy airport with lots of loud noise from jets taking off and landing. Despite the constant roar of the jets and other noise, you will hear your baby if it makes even the smallest noise in the next room.
The Reticular Activating System filters out the airport noise, which is unimportant to you and keeps you focused on your baby, which is the “Most important” thing to you. The Reticular Activating System is like a filter between your conscious mind and your subconscious mind. It takes instructions from your conscious mind and passes it on to your subconscious mind, which becomes diligent and alert to your request.
Now that you are aware of the Reticular Activating System, you can control it. If you are sitting in a room listening to a teacher, speaker or even friend and feel yourself daydreaming or self-talking, take a deep breath and become present with the person’s words. Staying present is the most important part of keeping the Reticular Activating System open and absorbing what is being said. I believe that awareness brings change and this awareness can have dramatic impacts on being a great student, leader, employee, parent, friend or spouse.