LifeXchange

Your Brain at Work: The Reticular Activating System (RAS) and Your Goals & Behaviour

How do you sustainably motivate a large team? By understanding the fundamental physiological processes that govern motivation. Meet your Reticular Activating System (RAS)

A bundle of nerves. Your built-in “autopilot”. And the No 1 key to changing behaviour, reaching goals and unlocking your team’s potential. Would you believe that the most powerful tool for understanding and changing human behaviour – yours and that of all your colleagues, teams and friends – is a small part of your brain called the Reticular Activating System?

Now, you may already know that we are a specialist PhD-led change-management company, and we spend most of our time researching the neuroscience & psychology of business (see our neuromanagement) so we can help HRs, owners and executives use science to run their companies better through organisational development.

“If you’ve ever asked why people behave the way they do, and how you can sustainably change that behaviour for the better, then this is for you.” 

And that’s why – if you’ve been to any of our neuro workshops, you’ll know – we have this information and we share it so that you can benefit and really max the potential of your teams and reach your business goals faster and more efficiently.

So, if you’ve ever asked why people behave the way they do in your company (because it ultimately affects everyone’s performance), and how you can sustainably change that behaviour for the better, then this is for you: We look at the Reticular Activating System, it’s functions and how to unlock the things you want for your company.

WHAT IS THE RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM?

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves that sits in your brainstem. And its job is to regulate behavioural arousal, consciousness and motivation. What that means is, the RAS is able to control what incoming information (stimulus) you’re aware of, so that you’ll be motivated to behave in a certain way.

But what does that mean? It’s a “guard” that sits between your brain and your senses (sight, hearing, touch etc.) and filters what information gets through and what doesn’t. Bet you didn’t know that your brain is not processing everything that happens around you!

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Why? It’s a survival mechanism. At any given time, only a certain amount of information is actually useful to your brain. For example: If there’s a tiger about to attack you, that’s the only information your brain needs to drive you to action – RUN for your life! It doesn’t need to know what colour the grass and flowers are, or how the air smells, or what song is playing in the background – those things are all irrelevant information. 

Your RAS is the thing that analyses what incoming information is actually relevant to you (and your survival), and lets only the most important stuff through – it actively blocks the rest of the info (so you are not aware of it).

YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT THE RAS’s MAIN FUNCTION IS

Your Reticular Activating System is there to keep you alive and sane. And it does that by trying to automate your behaviour as much as possible.

What? Yes! If you’ve seen our series on how your brain works, you’ll know your brain is made up of neurons and every thought, emotion, concept of any object or abstract – anything you can think of – is “saved” by your brain through neural pathways. And the most dominant and frequently used neural pathways (thoughts) get stored in your subconscious for automatic memory recall.

“The first few times you got into a car to learn to drive, it was nerve-racking. But now, after driving for years, it’s like the car knows the way home from your office and drives itself.”

Think about it: You don’t have to think about what an apple is anymore (like a newborn Baby does), you can just see it, sense if you’re hungry and eat it. It’s automatic.

THE RAS AND BEHAVIOUR

But the thing is: Our behaviour works the same way. The first few times you got into a car to learn to drive, it was nerve-racking – sweaty palms, a rush of excitement. But now, after driving for years, it’s like the car knows the way home from your office and drives itself. You don’t have to think about it, it’s almost automatic. That’s your automation at work – and that’s what the RAS does: it decides what information to pass through to the brain so that it can best automate you.

Want to test it? Go drive your car in China. Completely different place, can’t read the road signs, chaos on the road – you’ll soon feel very similar to how you felt the first time you were driving. Why? Your Reticular Activating System does not have any information to know what to filter, so it has to let everything through, stressing you out like little before.

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AN EXAMPLE OF THE RAS AT WORK

LifeXchange founder, Dr Cobus Oosthuizen, often references a study that was done on couples with newborn babies who live near airports. The study found that both parents would sleep right through a plane taking off nearby (extremely loud). Yet the mother would wake up if the baby stirred in the next room (comparatively, a much lower sound level).

And that’s the Reticular Activating System at work. See, the RAS learnt through the neural pathways that a plane is not important to the mom – what’s important to her is taking care of her child. So, in the ultimate act of automation-kindness, the RAS started blocking the sound of planes. But a baby stirring, now that’s important information – so the RAS lets it through and BOOM, mom’s up and ready.

Very interestingly, the dad often didn’t wake up for Baby. So, the researchers took mom away for a few days, and guess what: Dad suddenly started waking up when Baby cried. Why? Because before, the info wasn’t important to him; mom was there to tend to Baby. But now that mom’s gone, it’s dad’s job, so the info’s important and the RAS lets it through.

HOW CAN I USE THE RAS TO CHANGE BEHAVIOUR & REACH GOALS?

Well, the Reticular Activating System just reinforces what’s in your subconscious. So if your thought (belief) in a neural pathway is “I don’t like exercise”, guess what: You’ll battle to get into a fitness routine. Because your RAS will only filter out information that will make you avoid exercise at all costs. To the point where it will block information about any fitness successes, you might achieve.

And that’s one of the most NB things to know about your neural pathways and RAS: It’s an automatic process that cannot distinguish between good and bad behaviour. Your RAS does not care whether getting fit is good or bad for you. It only automates what’s in your neural pathways.

“Knowing how the brain works is the new frontier for better business. You can use it to drive real, sustainable change in your company.”

So, to create change and instil a new behaviour, you have to reprogramme the neural pathway, maybe to something like: “Wow, I LOVE exercise!”. And then your RAS will automate that behaviour.

It’s super powerful. Watch Dr Cobus Oosthuizen use it to do what millions of psychologists categorically deemed impossible in this video (get the full story at our backwards brain bike post):

And it’s possible to not only reprogramme neural pathways and use your RAS to do great things yourself but you also make it so with other people, as a team. See the proof you can rewire your brain.

WHAT DOES THIS INFORMATION MEAN FOR MY BUSINESS?

Knowing how the brain works is the new frontier for better business. You can use it to drive real, sustainable change in your company because human behaviour and performance are at the core of most of the hindrances and opportunities in companies.

The proof: Google and Netflix. Some of the highest-performing new companies are able to just out-class all their competitors. And analysts spend hours trying to figure out their “magic secret”. When all it is, is just better-applied human behavioural science.

So, if you actively seek out more information about the latest evidence-based science around how humans think and behave, you can unlock even more amazing potential in your company.

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NEUROMANAGEMENT CAN UNLOCK THE THINGS YOU WANT FOR YOUR COMPANY

Like we said, LifeXchange Solutions is a change management company, and that simply means we exist to help take companies into the future – to apply the latest science in business today! Because it is possible. The next Google or Netflix can come from anywhere and be in any industry – it’s not about what field or market you operate in, it’s about how well you understand and invest in your people.

And you don’t need to take our word for it. See what these managers said they learnt at our last public HR workshop, and what this group of CEOs took from one of our Agile Excellence programmes.

NEED HELP?

We’re leaders in using various neuromanagement techniques, science and culture-based solutions and organisational development tools to help drive businesses to the next level.

And we’ll send a team to your company right now to help you figure out exactly what’s needed to get you where you want to be – no obligation from you!


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