Customise your RAS

brainIf you read that title aloud in polite company, it could be embarrassing but, in fact, it’s simply my brother Ron’s choice of title to elucidate a fascinating set of facts of which I, at least, was previously unaware. His post proceeds as follows:

If you want an authoritative description of the Reticular Activating System (RAS), don’t read on, but do an internet search where you will find echoes of Bill’s last blog in sentences like:

“The main function of the RAS is to modify and potentiate thalamic and cortical function such that electroencephalogram desynchronisation ensues.”

For me, those words are the equivalent of a “danger of death” sign on a power line: surely no good can come of me ‘desynchronizing someone’s electroencephalogram,’ so I’m inclined to keep well clear. That would be a mistake, however, because I think awareness of the RAS can offer the writer a useful working tool.

Put simply, the RAS is a filtering system that limits the amount of stimuli coming at us in our daily lives. We cannot fully attend to the millions of bits of ‘data’ that assail us every second, so we need a way of selecting those bits which are essential to our survival or useful to our achieving a particular purpose. In writing this, for example, I don’t need to watch or listen to the sparrow outside my window or notice the texture of the wood on my desk, so my RAS blocks those channels, leaving me to focus on the keyboard and the ideas I’m trying to convey. Without these natural filters, I’d be in a constant state of excitement, stimulated by a stream of information and events but without the ability – or perhaps the time – to interact with any of it: it would all be of horribly equal significance. The interesting and – from a writer’s point of view – useful thing about the RAS is that we can interact with and customize it.

Here are a couple of examples of the RAS in action. If I asked you what proportion of cars on the road were Audis, you would only be able to take a very general guess. If, however, you customize your RAS and give yourself permission to notice Audi cars over the next few days, you will be able to give a much more informed estimate. What you will have done is ‘tell’ your RAS to open an Audi channel: cars that were previously just a part of the general scene are given a new significance and register in a more dynamic way. It will feel like a series of self-created coincidences. (Incidentally, I don’t have to absolve myself from any blame for the number of accidents caused by drivers concentrating on cars’ radiator grilles rather than traffic lights over the coming days: you will not be distracted by having to look for Audis; the process is automatic and effortless.)

Similarly, you might decide to take a break in Paris and, within hours, you have found a forgotten guide book on your shelf, Paris weekend breaks advertised in this week’s local paper, a rough guide to Paris in a charity shop, a Eurostar feature on TV. They were all there ahead of your decision but now they flood into your consciousness like a stream of happy coincidences.

So, how – you ask – can writers exploit this faculty? Self evidently, they already do in their planning, research and subsequent absorption in their subject. That extreme act of attention a writer initiates in setting out her words is an act of sharp, conscious filtering from a mass of original possibilities. Well, yes, and yet I suspect it’s also useful to put more trust in the unconscious, ‘secretarial’ nature of the reticular, freeing up some of your other writing faculties. Let me offer a local example.

When Bill was writing The Figurehead, alongside his practical, hands on experience of wood carving and the focused research he was doing into the craft, he will have – apparently coincidentally – discovered loads of previously unnoticed examples of the carver’s art in his environment, heard references to wood carving on the radio and television, perhaps ‘found’ a tool shop which was always there. And all this, not simply because his research led him to these resources, not just through a conscious immersion but via a literally open-minded approach to his subject, trusting his reticular to let in the relevance which was, and is, always there. Without any conscious intention, serendipity is almost guaranteed. So, if you are anything like as lazy as Bill pretends to be, open up that portal, sit back and let your RAS do some of the work..


  1. Splendid blog, and most interesting. The RAS is an old pal of mine, since anaesthetists use drugs which turn off the RAS to induce sleep, and during the process, il dottore must turn up his own RAS so as to keep very much on the qui vive (otherwise events may take a turn for the qui meurt).

  2. Fascinating – thank you Ron. I’m delighted to find there’s a very good reason for the phenomena you described. I’ve remarked more than once how I suddenly start noticing related items after thinking of one particular thing. Hope I can now chanel it to writing.

  3. I’m grateful, and relieved, Dr. I was wary of a lack of expertise and felt your presence as I wrote. Rosemary, I’m glad to see your use of the word phenomena. I edited it from my piece, fearing people might think I was claiming the RAS has magic properties, which it doesn’t. But you’re right, it does seem phenomenal when you encounter it.

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