How’s your Reticular Activating System? There’s a pretty good chance you’re not aware of it, which is good, because that’s its job. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a network of neurons in our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information and lets the important stuff get through.
For instance, how are your feet? You were probably completely unaware of them until you read that, but now you are. Mine are a bit cold.
The human brain can focus on around seven pieces of information at one time, and if one of those is constantly being aware of your feet, it eats up a lot of our available headspace. Right now, I suspect you’re using some of your brain capacity to wonder what my point is.
Well, focus is important, there’s a saying that “energy flows where attention goes”, and this can be true of positive and negative focus. If you spend a lot of time focusing on negatives, your overall outlook will be dominated by it. However, if you focus on positive thoughts and emotions you can radically alter your perception of the world. It may even alter your brain chemistry.
Another thing our brain does is to have a propensity towards the negative. The theory is that there are good evolutionary reasons for this, in that the brain gets us ready for the worst so when we hear a noise downstairs at night, we’re into a fight or flight response, rather than the more considered thought that perhaps the stack of lockdown wine glasses on the draining board had collapsed.
Both of these things can combine to overwhelm us at the moment. Press and social media tend to focus on the negative in the current situation. We are presented with a daily death toll, not the number of people who have recovered, empty supermarket shelves instead of wonderful local produce deliveries (which you can find here).
Just as you are now again aware of your feet (sorry), you can consciously shift your focus to the positive and away from the negative. Try reducing your social media and news exposure, replace it with something more positive, or even focus on what you’re going to do once we can all leave our houses again.
One thing that has been shown to have a significant effect on your brain is gratitude. Recent neuroscience studies suggest it boosts serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that have sometimes been referred to as “natural anti-depressants”.
Gratitude isn’t about being grateful you’re better off than others, it requires a positive appraisal of your situation, not a comparison. Try thinking of three things you’re genuinely grateful for: weather, family, your heath or even just a good meal. If you can put yourself into a positive frame of mind with this, you may start to find it permeate into other areas of your life.
You really can control the way your brain reacts to things, and you can do this by changing the things around you. As high-pitched, posh musician James Blunt pointed out: if you don’t like the station, you can always change the channel.