Here’s one word that’ll either draw you in or make you recoil in horror, but before we write it, know that this isn’t the usual discussion.
We’re not talking about The Secret, we’re not talking about using your mind to transform letterbox bills into fanmail.
We’re talking about the Reticular Activating System (RAS).
It sits at the stem of your brain and essentially works as a filter to sift through the inundation of information that’s fed to you through your senses.
The interesting part is that we can guide it, to encourage ourselves to notice more of what we deem to be important.
The modern human is the same biological hodgepodge as it was 500 years ago. We’re operating with the same hardware, except we now have black rectangles in our pockets that connect us to an infinity of information and distraction.
Suffice to say technology lapped evolution, invented the car and has been doing doughnuts around our fleshy little bodies for dozens of years now.
According to NPR, even back in 2011, we were taking in 5x as much information as we did in 1986. In 2023? It doesn’t bear thinking about…
Actually, yes it does.
We have more hands on our attention than ever before. But we still have the same goals for ourselves. We also have the same frustrations: we don’t feel as if we have enough time; we want to do more; we want to perform better.
As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says, our brains “have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired.”
The RAS can help.
Use What You’ve Got
Consider it our brain’s way of taking an outcome we define, then combining it with an appropriately corresponding neuromodulator to incentivise its actuality.
To quote our Lord and Saviour Andrew Huberman, the RAS is “A collection of brain areas that can queue up neuromodulators -- acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine.”
Call it intention. Call it goal setting. Call it visualisation. Call it… *shudders*... manifestation.
When we repeatedly tell our brain what to pay attention to, we refine the inputs from the countless to the few. This enhances our likelihood of noticing things that will lead to our desired outcome.
Ever wonder why you’re somehow able to hear your name being called when you’re in a busy environment? Because you’ve assigned it importance. This is known as the Cocktail Party Effect. It’s the simplest way to understand how we’re primed to receive information that we decide to be important to us.
So if you can train your brain to distinguish something particular amongst the din of a party, can you teach it to focus on other important things that pull you towards what you want?
Be The Ball
Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s actually happening and what you choose to tell it.
Case in point, one study saw Stanford gymnasts use visualisation as a means to “execute, for the first time, several complex tricks they had been working on for over a year… [eliminating] timing errors, [increasing] flexibility and, possibly, [concentrating] strength.”
So mental practice can elevate physical execution. How about behavioural-led inputs?
Turns out it affects “commitment towards savings, willingness to wait… and performance in a simulated sales task.” Importantly, the so-called goal gradient effect reveals that effort increases with proximity to the goal (Kivetz et al., 2006).
As with anything in life, repetition is key.
Like A Monkey With A Miniature Symbol
Enter the illusory truth effect. This one explains fake news and the benefits of visualisation in tandem.
The more we hear something, the more we believe it. A 2021 study found that “the more often [the] participants had previously encountered the statement, the more truthful they rated it to be.”
Interestingly, a 2019 study found that this increase in belief “occurs across all levels of plausibility. Therefore, even highly implausible statements will become plausible with enough repetition.” As a bonus, a review of 51 individual studies also highlighted the correlation between repetition and truth.
One Last Time
So, to recap, there’s part of our brain that we can train to filter out what’s unimportant to us and to focus on what we want.
Visualisation of activities makes us perform better when we come to do them. It also encourages us to take action, due to us imagining the future we want for ourselves. Then, as we get closer to the goal, we increase our efforts.
And the more that we hear something, the more we believe it, even when we understand it’s highly implausible.
Awesome. Take some of this information to heart, for your own sake.
It’s worth a few moments of your time each day to prime yourself to focus on whatever it is you desire.