Every day, our brain is bombarded with millions of bits of input and data from the complex, chaotic context we live in. Somehow, it needs to organize this massive flow of information and make sense of it, and the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a key factor in this process. The RAS is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters through the information input, picking out what is important, and eliminating the rest.
The RAS has received a lot of positive press from the self-help industry in recent years, as it enables us to maintain a clear focus and align our perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions towards the achievement of our goals.
Your RAS identifies what you focus on most and creates a perceptual filter for it – which usually consists of a combination of beliefs, values, emotions and habitual thought patterns. It then seeks information that validates your perceptual filters, sifting through the noise, applying the search parameters your mind has developed over time, optimizing the search results and creating an increasingly intricate map of reality.
Your RAS dictates what you are able to perceive
In many ways, your RAS operates like an internet search engine, which learns about your personal profile and preferences, optimizing the search results to fit your interests better and better, every time you use your browser. This has the neat effect that the search results become more streamlined, personalized and relevant, reinforcing your perceptual filters every time you engage with the world.
But at the same time, your RAS will increasingly eliminate anything that does not fit your pre-set filters, reducing your ability to get a complete and reliable picture of what is really going in your context. This effect is well documented in the context of internet search engines, where clever algorithms effectively create a sort of information-bubble or cocoon around us over time, reinforcing what we already believe to know, whilst preventing us from being exposed to controversial information that might challenge our world-view, force us to think through and assess reality more comprehensively, and motivate us to adjust our filters.
This is one of the reasons why two individuals conducting the same online search, using their personal browsers and preferred search engines, may get totally different search results.
Your RAS can seriously mess up your sales and business negotiations
By controlling what you are able to see, hear and sense, your RAS directly influences your beliefs, thoughts, emotions and actions. Although this provides us with many significant benefits in everyday life, this effect can have a seriously negative impact in the context of intercultural sales and business negotiations.
When coaching our corporate clients on how to improve their results in global business deals, we often find that the negotiators:
- default to the tried-and-tested, best-practice ways of doing things they learned in their home-country
- fail to properly observe the personal and cultural behavioral patterns and preferences of the people they are negotiating with
- don’t have the means or experience required to interpret these patterns correctly and adapt their interactions accordingly
In many ways, the RAS of these negotiators has created a massive blind spot in their mind, making it practically impossible for them to access the information available in plain sight before them, due to the censoring effect of their perceptual filters.
You can train your RAS to provide better results
In a recent negotiation seminar, one of the course participants told me that in her native language, RAS was the word they used to describe wild, aggressive dogs. Indeed, in many ways, our RAS often behaves like an intelligent, fierce, untamed watchdog.
The more we get involved in intercultural negotiations, the more we need to train our RAS, to check, update or even reprogram the perceptual filters it applies, in order for us to understand the situational dynamics more completely and craft better, more sustainable deals.
As a first practical step in this direction, I teach my clients to activate their inner observer, enabling it to identify, understand and interpret differing patterns of behavior. In our global business world, it is becoming essential for us to proactively manage our RAS.
If we don’t, we may frequently encounter business disaster abroad.