Then you’ve stumbled on one of the best kept secrets of how your brain behaves, or doesn’t. There’s a little piece of it that sits at the top of your spine and the bottom of your brain stem. It’s called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and that mouthful might explain why you’ve never heard of it.
Its job is to decide which of the multitude of signals clamouring for your attention should be let in. As you read this, there are the sights and sounds around you, the smells, air temperature and humidity, the feel of your clothes … and that’s just outside your body. But you’re only conscious of a few of those things.
Its function explains a lot of strange but commonplace experiences: suddenly the streets are full of the car you’re about to buy; the holiday destination you’ve been toying with keeps cropping up in conversations, on TV … The RAS picks up what’s important to you and brings it to your attention. Comedians who say “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre” aren’t making it up – well, the first time anyway. They’ve been rehearsing so hard that the RAS has edited everything but the most pertinent for their act, its keeping them in the zone.
So why can’t we find the car keys, mobile phone, purse when we want to? Because, stronger than the surface thought “I must find …” is a voice that’s fuelled by our ideas about ourselves. “I won’t find it because I’m: unlucky/bad at this/don’t deserve to (I should be more organised) – and so on. And our RAS listens and obeys “You believe you can’t find it? I can organise that.”
My late wife and I used to live 10 minutes drive from Sadler’s Wells. On ballet nights we’d have friends for dinner and then go as a group. Before we’d finished eating she’d be chivvying me to leave or “we won’t find a parking space”. I confidently always left later – and always found a parking space. Why? I’m lucky with parking, so my RAS allows me to see the people with the shopping bags heading for their car, the exhaust from an engine starting, the blink of an indicator light. Guess what would have happened if my wife had been able to drive?
It’s a bit more than parking however. Think of “I’m hopeless with interviews, money, relationships …” – and how limited the lives of people whose RAS quietly arranges events and finds evidence to fit those pictures.
People who I’ve helped to realise what’s going on, those that really want to change their lives, they really do. They break out in smiles as they realise that they can and never look back. Time to retrain and harness the power of your Reticular Activating System.