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Activating the Positive: How to Train Your RAS (Reticular Activating System)

You’ve got to accentuate the positive * Eliminate the negative * Latch onto the affirmative!

When Johnny Mercer penned the lyrics to “Accentuate the Positive” in 1944, he most likely wasn’t thinking about neuroscience and the mysteries of the human brain. Nonetheless, he succinctly summed up the possibilities that the reticular activating system offers us.

The reticular activating system (RAS) is a bundle of nerves approximately 2 inches long and 0.5 inches wide that starts above the spinal cord and extends to the midbrain. Its small size, though, belies its power. The RAS controls our fight-or-flight responses and our sleep-wake states. It’s also the connector between our subconscious brain and our conscious one; it acts like a filter, separating what’s important to us from the unnecessary stuff. The human brain is bombarded with approximately 8 million bits, or 1 megabyte, of information in one day, which makes the RAS’ filtering feat even more impressive.

But in this age of technology when more and more information is coming at us nonstop, it often feels like our brains are heading for overload. How do we filter out the less than positive, and even downright negative, information and train our brains to focus on what will benefit our well-being? If only there were a way to Marie Kondo our brains, sorting out and jettisoning the inessential and creating a peaceful space for us to relax and live with what “sparks joy.”

Although training our RAS is more complicated than learning how to fold our socks, it is achievable. As with all things involving the brain, it takes focus, discipline, and daily practice to achieve results. Some of these practices are ones that most of us have been lectured about by a medical professional at least once in our lives: getting enough sleep (between 6.5 and 8 hours a night), incorporating exercise or mindful movement (i.e., moving with your attention fully focused on each movement of you make) into our daily routines, reducing consumption of processed foods with high levels of added sugar, sodium, and fat.

Here are a few daily mental exercises to train your brain and get your RAS filtering out the negative and accentuating the positive.

· Start by setting a specific intent or goal. Specificity is important because it gives your brain something to focus on. So, for example, rather than thinking “I want to be happier,” zero in on exactly what might make you happier. If it’s having less stress in your life, go deeper and examine what contributes to your level of stress. Maybe one contributing factor is the compulsion to check your social media accounts every five minutes. Rather than forcing yourself to get off all social media in one fell swoop, start by minimizing how often you look at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Instead of every five minutes, make it twenty minutes, and then forty-five. Keep decreasing the amount of time you spend online, which will result in decreasing the amount of inessential information that your RAS has to filter out; use that time instead for something that will allow your overworked brain to take a brief break, like stepping away from electronic devices to stretch.

· Affirmations have gotten a bad rap, in part due to Saturday Night Live’s memorable Stuart Smalley skits (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!”). But the power of affirmations has science behind it: If you repeatedly tell yourself, either mentally or verbally, that you’re clumsy, then you’re conditioning your RAS to allow in the information that confirms your bias, which means you’ll continue to believe that you’re clumsy. But telling yourself that you are graceful, on a daily basis and with conviction, will begin to introduce a different narrative, one that your RAS will eventually confirm.

· Specificity is also key to visualization. Come up with a visual scenario of a desired outcome with as many sensory details as possible and replay that image once a day. As with affirmations, visualization conditions your RAS to flag what’s most important to you.