Last week, I had an overdue coffee catch up with my friend Jules. At one point she passed me a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses, saying, “try these on and look at the light”. I did and all I could see was a great big glowing heart like a neon sign. I then looked up at all the ceiling lights and a cloud of hearts appeared. The glasses, from www.lovespecs.org are sold to raise money for a charity. They are popular at festivals and weddings and I love them. Jules said that wearing them allows her to see the good in the world.
Which got me thinking about how we are sensory creatures. Because we can be bombarded by over 14,000,000 bits of information at any time, we have a filter system called the reticular activating system (RAS) that is a collection of nerves in our brainstems. It is the portal through which nearly all information enters the brain. It filters out unnecessary stuff so that what we need to focus on gets through. Otherwise, we would be like a computer crashing with overload all the time.
It is the reason why when you decide to be different and buy a red car and take it out on the road you see red cars everywhere. It’s the reason that an exhausted mother will snap awake when her child starts to whimper or why you are in a noisy meeting but suddenly aware that you name has been mentioned across the room.
At its most basic, the RAS will respond to your name, anything that is a threat and information that is needed immediately. Quicker than asking Alexa to do something.
However, like all operating systems it has limitations. It responds to novelty and looks for the new. So something different or out of place really draws your attention. Great when you were on the lookout for a sabre-toothed tiger. Not so great when you are trying to relax at home and keep seeing things that need fixing.
The RAS seeks data that validates your beliefs. So, if you believe that all dogs are vicious you can walk down a road and not see the 10 sweet dogs (that don’t correspond to your filter) but your RAS goes on red-alert as you pass the one that’s growling. Thus reinforcing your initial belief. At its worst this is why prejudice can develop. People see what they believe and disregard the rest. Even a heated debate on the radio or TV will see people not change their views or let new information into their ‘filter’.
The good news is that as it is wired in this way, understanding it and working with it means you can also rewire or reset your RAS for success. To do so, lead it with your conscious thoughts to create new filters. This is called ‘establishing your intent’ and it is rather like a better New Year’s Goals list. You concentrate hard on what you want, e.g. “I want to see the good in the world” or “I want to meet exciting people on my trip” and your RAS will help you focus in such a way that you meet the people, find the information and become open to the opportunities you desire.
Well it is science and it can enable you to have your own rose-coloured view of the world more often. Even without the amazing heart-shaped glasses. But I’m off to buy a pair as it is for a good cause.
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