The brain is an amazing organ, it takes in and records all the information from all five or our senses. If we had access to all of our memories and were flooded with stimulus from all of our senses all the time we would struggle to focus. So to prevent us from being over whelmed by too much information and to make sure that we stay focused on the important things our reticular activating system screens out the unimportant and draws to our attention the important.
Here is a couple of examples of how this works:
Take a moment and listen to everything you can hear: Probably some back ground traffic noise, a dogs bark or some birds singing outside, some water flowing through some pipes, the hum of the fridge, people watching TV or playing a game in another room or your neighbours.
Before I asked you to listen out for these “background” noises were you acutely aware of them? Almost certainly not if you were you would be distracted by them rather than focusing on reading this post. Screening out the unimportant is the role of the reticular activating system.
The other job is to bring to your attention what is important to what you are focusing on. Here is another example, if your family has ever got a new car and you thought to yourself – I haven’t seen too many of this model around. But then suddenly once your family has one you start to see them everywhere. The model was always around you just didn’t notice them but once it became important to your life, your reticular activating system started pointing them out to you, so you see a lot more of them.
And this process doesn’t just happen with what you observe in the moment but it also extends to your memories and past experiences.
Why is this important?
Well once you understand how the reticular activating system works you will start to realise the importance of controlling what you are focusing on.
If you keep repeating to yourself “Why do bad things always happen to me, why do I always have such rotten luck” what will your reticular activating system start drawing to your attention? And more concerning, what will it start screening out? If you keep on thinking you are unlucky and nothing good happens- your brain is probably screening out many opportunities and fortunate things, while simultaneously drawing to your attention anything and everything that will make you more depressed.
You may think “well that’s terrible! Why would it be so bad to me?” It is not intending to be bad it is just following your orders. You asked it to find all the things that are bad, so it did. The great new is if you say “Today is going to be a great day, I am feeling lucky” Then guess what? Your brain will start seeking out silver lining to every cloud, it will seek out all the opportunities and draw your attention to every smile you see
So the through out our lives we must be very conscious of what we focus on.
We must consciously focus on the positive. That doesn’t mean we ignore or pretend the problems don’t exist, but rather we must focus on the solution or having the strength to deal with the things we can’t change.
This is much easier said than done. If we don’t sometimes pay attention to bad or dangerous things we will fall victim to them. You need to look both ways when you cross the street other wise you might get run over. You need to pay attention to the where the bullies are at school or the teenagers who look like criminals on the street. So focusing on potential danger is wise but we can’t live our lives spending all of our time worried about danger either.
Focusing on the positive has it’s limits too. Thinking positively will not guarantee your success but you are a hell of a lot more likely to succeed than if you are focused on what you don’t want.
What has this got to with martial arts training? Well it is easy to get into the habit of starting to think things like “I can’t do this” Right now try and think of two negative thought like “I can’t get this kata” or “I can’t do this kick” Now take a minute to replace come up with positive affirmations of what you want to have happen.
Replacing your negative affirmations and bad questions (that focus on the problem and what you don’t want) with positive affirmations and good questions (that focus you on the solution and what you do want).
It is not enough to recognise you are focusing on what you don’t want you need to replace it with a new thought focusing on what you do want. Think of it like a garden, if you pull out all the weeds they will quickly return. But if you replace the weeds with flowers and all the other good stuff there will be less room for the weeds. Unfortunately the weeds are always going to try to return and you just need to keep on pulling them out and immediately replace them.