Four Ways to Help Your Brain Help You

jellybeansI like licorice. When I sit in front of a bowl of mixed jelly beans, I automatically grab the black ones. I don’t really think about it. Very quickly I have put 15 black jelly beans into my hand. That’s just the way it is. I don’t consciously ask myself, “Whoa, here’s a yellow one, and there’s an orange one. Should I taste them, or not? Uh oh, there’s a white one, and a green one …”

One time my wife asked me if I had tried one of the new purple beans with the green flecks. I couldn’t have tried them; I never really saw them. But how does this happen?

There is a switch in our brains called the Reticular Activating System. A tangle of neurons and fiber in the spinal cord, the brain stem, and the mid-brain, it helps us reduce all incoming data down to a few chunks of information. We don’t feel it happening, but all day the RAS is making subconscious choices. Should we focus on this or on that? And we have a lot of decisions to make. In one second, we experience over 100 million bits of data. They are constantly coming in through our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and feeling.

As you are viewing this blog, other things are also within your range: the wall, outside noise, the odor of fresh coffee, the light level, an itch, etc., and perhaps a fire in the room. You can’t possibly make go/no-go decisions on all of these distractions. Filtering incoming information is a big part of why the human species has survived. Our forebears stopped etching pictures on the cave wall if they heard or felt the presence of a tiger. They didn’t go through a logical search for a solution. They moved. And if your RAS senses a fire in the room, you move too.

The good news is that you can help “set” the RAS: your own and others’. If you are consciously considering the purchase of a Corvette, you will automatically notice them on the highway. You actually see other cars, but you won’t remember them, just as I saw the purple jelly beans with the green flecks, but didn’t recall them. If you’re in a store looking for a certain color of clothing, you filter out the other colors and immediately connect with only one. Hundreds of choices, but few of them get much consideration.

The challenge is that we do the same thing at meetings. When people are talking about something that captures my attention, I can stay focused on that subject matter for quite a while. On the other hand, other agenda items may not make it into my conscious thinking at all. Have you ever “zoned out” for a while and realized that the last five minutes were a total mystery to you? So the trick is to decide what your RAS should select.

Here are ways to help the Reticular Activating System enhance your capacity to lead and be led:

  • Balance thoughts and emotions. “I don’t like the current strategy, but other people apparently do. Even though I am skeptical, I will actively listen for the benefits of going the other way.”
  • Be there. “When I let myself be distracted, I miss out on important issues.” Daydreaming effectively shuts down your RAS.
  • Take action. “Let’s put a stake in the ground.” The RAS takes notice of tangible data. It is more convinced by early wins than by opinions. Franklin Roosevelt used to say that we can’t do everything, but we can do something.
  • Reinforce incoming data. “This matches up with other information I have.” Our brains can only hold about seven chunks of information, and for less than a minute. Memories are volatile. We have to repeat and connect in order to retain.

The Reticular Activation System is real. Take advantage of it to help yourself and others move forward.

About the author

Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read his posts here on LeaderChat the fourth Saturday of each month.

4 thoughts on “Four Ways to Help Your Brain Help You

  1. Great post! I’d be interested in more blog posts on how to improve focus and retain a large volume of information.

  2. Trying to see the debate from the other side is a great tip for staying focussed. I had a meeting yesterday when I was proposing one course of action but, by listening to the other side of the argument, I realised that I hadn’t thought through all the options. I could have switched off and stayed with my entrenched point of view. I’m going to see how often I can stick to your rules in meeting from now on.

  3. Pingback: Get Stuck in Curiosità | What Inspires Me

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