The reticular activating system, or RAS, is a specialized part of the medulla that sorts millions of impulses to the brain per second. It acts like a gate keeper, deflecting trivial input while allowing more vital information into the brain. The RAS, or the “old brain,” has evolved over millions of years and has developed a tendency to magnify any negative impulses to the brain. This process is thought to have developed eons ago during the Stone Age when hunter-gatherers faced almost constant life threatening dangers.

These traits, however, have been passed on and even today our “old brain” can disrupt our ability to be successful. The hard-wired instinct of the RAS is to preoccupy us with the negative. For example, a few well intended words of criticism, at work or at home, are instinctually magnified by the RAS. “Danger, Danger!” We tend to get all worked up and usually try to defend ourselves. The RAS can also completely deflate a genuine compliment!

Whether the situation is positive or negative the RAS instinctively tells us to assume the worst. Without a solid foundation with others, a clear understanding of where we and others stand on an issue, and a clear discernment between fact and fiction, assuming the worst will eventually lead to mistrust, confusion, cynicism, and holding back. These are all killers of true human genius and effectiveness.

Managing your old brain:

  • Always listen to others with the intent of demonstrating that you fully understand them.
  • Pause and become self aware of the scene and your reactions. Are your thoughts and feelings useful right now? What response would best serve the situation and ultimately move all involved in the right direction?
  • Change your scene. Routinely pause throughout your day and focus on something else. Step outside the office to breathe some fresh air and take in nature. Exercise even!
  • Always take responsibility for your side of the street. If 10% of what others are saying is true, own up to it first, then deal with the 90% that is ambiguous.
  • Journal: Keep a list of your thoughts and feelings. Clear your mind. Our brains were not designed to store stuff! Holding onto thoughts, feelings, “to do’s” creates background chatter which consumes energy and demands attention. More importantly, keep a list of what you are grateful for and review this list regularly. This is the “good stuff.”
  • Respect the old brain of others and begin relationships with strong foundations and clear expectations. The sooner you can begin making deposits (positive affirmations, clear expectations, clear guidelines, genuine apologies, etc.) with these people the harder it will be for their old brain to send them the wrong signals about you.

Bottom line: Don’t spend too much time in your head! Best of luck!


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