The RAS and Goal Setting
Today we introduce a mechanism of the brain that you’ve already been putting into practice, even if you didn’t know it: the RAS, or the Reticular Activating System. This is a little brain center located right above your spinal cord, and it plays a major role in sorting all of the external stimuli we receive day to day. Everything we see, everything we touch, everything we smell, everything we hear, and everything we taste—the 5 senses and then some.
The RAS helps us discern what’s important and relevant to our day to day functioning, and what’s not. If our brain were to process every single piece of information that it receives a minute, we would explode; we simply don’t have enough computing power to organize all of that stimuli, and that’s okay. Instead, the RAS picks up on the important information and discards the rest. The information it collects changes as our goals, drivers, and motivations change.
For example, say you decide that you really want a shiny new Tesla. Suddenly you start seeing Teslas everywhere—on the highway, in parking lots, in advertisements. It’s highly unlikely that there was a spike in Tesla sales all of sudden; more likely, your RAS has been told that Teslas are now important information and it is actually noticing them, where it previously filtered them out.
When we decide that something is important, our brain begins to focus on it. In many ways, our RAS is really what’s at play when Instagram influencers talk about “manifesting”—by centering their attention on something, it increases the likelihood that that something is achieved because their RAS has begun recategorizing information, opportunities, and connections.
And the way we’ve been using this already is through the idea of vision-casting—of stepping into our lives a week or a month or a year from now. Not only what we’ll be doing, who we’ll be around, and what we’ll have achieved, but also, how we’ll feel. By getting these thoughts and feelings down on hardcopy, we effectively redirect our RAS in the direction of those new goals and the RAS begins picking up on all of the things that will make the vision-casted future a reality.
This goes hand in hand with goal-setting; when we create a goal, we redirect our RAS towards that goal. But we can boost this even more—because we know that the RAS is especially focused on sensory experiences like taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound, we can implement these things into our goal setting practices. This concept is exactly why researchers have found that actually writing goals down on paper makes us more likely to accomplish them. The feel of the pen in our hand, the sound of the paper scratching, the visual we see of the goals on the page—all of these factors strengthen our RAS’s attention to the goal, making it more likely to stick.
Today, let’s focus on getting some of these goals down on paper. Don’t focus too much about the details, yet—we’ll dive more into the nitty gritty aspects of goal setting in the coming days—just simply allow your RAS to start noticing the pieces that will lead you in the direction of your goals.
Arguinchona, J.H, Tadi, P. Neuroanatomy, Reticular Activating System. [Updated 2020 Jul 31]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549835/
RAS (Reticular Activating System). Positive Psychology | UMN Extension. (n.d.). https://extension.umn.edu/two-you-video-series/ras.