The reticular activating system (RAS) is involved in controlling sleep and wakefulness. It is the key that turns the brain on or off, more or less, though it would be better to say it is the key that turns the brain – and the body – up or down.
The RAS also filters
We are constantly bombarded with stimuli. We can’t pay attention to everything. Most of what is coming at us needs to be ignored so we can lfocus our attention can be usefully, and focus on what is important. The RAS operates a lot like a spam filter that really works, and only brings to your attention email that you need to pay attention to.
How does the RAS know what to ignore and what to have us pay attention to?
In general, as long as what is happening around you is pretty much what is expected, you don’t need to pay attention to anything. It what is coming in fits with what has come in before, the RAS more or less says, “Been there, done that” and ignores it. You can just relax, or you can focus your attention at whatever you choose. When the incoming sensory data is familiar, the RAS ignores it. It is when something unexpected is present – in the incoming sensory data – that the RAS goes into action, telling us to pay attention to that.
How does the RAS do its filtering?
Data that has come in at some previous time is abbreviated and stored in the brain in what psychologists call “chunks” of information. A “chunk” of information is a kind of “thumbnail”. The RAS looks at these thumbnail “chucks” to see what is familiar and what is not.
When something happens, the RAS compares what is happening with “chunks” of information stored in your mind. If what is happened corresponds pretty much with what happened previously, the RAS might let you be aware of it – or might not (it depends on how important what you are paying attention to is) – but it certainly won’t set off any alarms in your emotional control system.
The ring of your cell phone is stored in your mind as a “chunk” of information. It is stored in the brain where the RAS has access to it. Once stored, you respond differently to the ring of your cell phone than to someone else’s.
When your cell phone rings, the RAS will recognize it as a familiar “chunk”. If you are not involved in something really important, it will let you pay attention to it. If you are focused on something crucial, you won’t even hear your cell phone ring.
But when some other person’s cell phone rings, since its ring is not stored as a chunk in your mind, the RAS response to it will cause an increase in arousal. You will get a slight increase in heart rate and in breathing rate. You may, momentarily, feel a bit tense. Then, aroused for no good reason, you may feel irritated. Because the ring is unfamiliar, the RAS tells you to pay attention to it. You do, of course, only to find you have been unnecessarily aroused, as it is not your phone. Thus, irritation arises over being stressed for nothing.
We live in an ocean of incoming data.
When, within that ocean of data, there is nothing unexpected, we remain calm. Everything present is familiar. Everything present connects with some pre-existing “chunk”.
But when this ocean of data contains something unfamiliar or unexpected, the RAS springs into action. It sends a signal to the brain to pay attention. It also sends a signal to the body to “up-regulate”. Up-regulation means increasing heart rate and breathing rate so as to be ready in case the unexpected stimulus is the first indication of danger.
If the incoming data is not just unfamiliar or unexpected, but shocking, the up-regulation is greater. It shuts down the digestive system so blood used for digestion can be sent to the muscles. Sweat is released to pre-cool the body in case maximum physical activity is required for survival. It causes you to freeze until you decide what to do. And, it causes you to focus on this moment and no other to help you decide what to do. That is the “fight or flight” response, which is built into all of us to help us protect ourselves when in danger, and when we imagine we are in danger.
Anything unexpected in that ocean could mean danger.
That is why the RAS calls our attention to it. It could be something we need to go into the “fight or flight” mode for. But it could just as easily mean nothing at all. Ordinarily we can pay attention to the things the RAS calls upon us to notice, and make an appropriate decision about it, easily deciding if it really is a threat or not.
But on an airplane, a person who is anxious, is primed to interpret every unexpected stimulus, not just as something “unfamiliar” that needs to be examined, but as the first indication of disaster about which he or she is helpless to do anything about.
You can have fear in a situation in which you are completely safe. And, conversely, you can be in grave danger and have no fear whatsoever. For example, when driving your car on the highway, but having no information that the driver coming toward you is drunk.
Un-prime yourself by consciously reminding yourself that fear does not mean danger. Fear is only a signal to examine the situation for danger.
Turbulence as enduringly unfamiliar.
If turbulence felt consistent, like a steady vibration, we would have little if any trouble with it. We would get used to it in a very short time. We would easily be able to turn it into a “chunk” which the RAS could access to in the brain, and simply ignore.
If we had, in the mind, a “turbulence-chunk”, turbulence would be no problem. When turbulence started, the RAS would say, “let’s see . . . is this something I have a “chunk” of data about?” The RAS would quickly find the turbulence info chunk and decide there was no reason to even allow you to notice it.
Pilots have “turbulence-chunks”.
When I have flown with anxious clients, many times they have said to me, “What’s causing that turbulence?” I would say, “WHAT turbulence?” I had simply not noticed it at all. Because of my experience with turbulence, I had taken its characteristics in, “memorized” it, and stored it as a “turbulence-chunk”. My RAS, of course, had access to that “turbulence-chunk” and when the turbulence started, my RAS just ignored it.
Because of their “turbulence-chunk”, pilots have to sort of program themselves to pay attention to turbulence which their RAS would otherwise keep them from being aware of. More than once, a flight attendant has called on the intercom asking us to turn on the seat belt sign. The flight attendants had begun to find it difficult to walk around with trays in their hands, but we – seated in the cockpit – had not noticed the turbulence AT ALL!
But it isn’t so easy for non-pilots to form a “turbulence-chunk”. Turbulence is not a steady rhythmic vibration; it is irregular. It is constantly changing in strength and timing. In other words, it is chaotic. We can’t easily memorize its characteristics. Being chaotic, turbulence is not easily made into a chunk of information. When turbulence starts, the RAS looks for a “turbulence chunk”. It can’t find one. Since something is happening that does not correspond to any existing chunk, the RAS causes you to be aroused. Your heart rate increases. That may be interpreted as danger. If so, it becomes difficult to think clearly and to remember that turbulence is not a problem for the plane.
Turbulence as constantly “unexpectable”.
Thus, the problem people have with turbulence is, as long as it continues, there is an ongoing experience of the “unexpectable”. “Unexpectable” means a RAS alert. And ongoing “unexpectability” means the RAS will cause you to be aroused again and again and again.
During turbulence, the movements of the plane are chaotic. We are unable to predict – or expect – what the next motion will be. If turbulence were consistently up-down, up-down, up-down, up-down, etc., we could learn to live with it. We would expect a certain movement, and it would happen. When the expected happens, we are not aroused by the RAS.
Instead, turbulence is up-up-down-DOWN-down-nothing-UP-nothing-nothing-down-down-DOWN-nothing-up-up-etc. Try memorizing that last sentence and you will immediately see why turbulence is not something that easily gets translated into a chunk.
As long as turbulence continues in its unpredictable and unexpectable way, the RAS will continue to send out alert signals that rev us up. That is, unless we CAN find a way to “chunk” it.
What can we do about this?
Expect “unexpectableness.” Can we get relief from distress during turbulence simply by learning to expect it to do what is unexpected? Natives of Vermont are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Vermonters have learned to expect – when it comes to weather – the unexpected. We might benefit if we could learn to be Vermonters when it comes to turbulence, and simply expect:
- there will be unexpected turbulence, and
- expected or unexpected, when turbulence is going on, what it does will have one consistent quality: the next motion you feel in turbulence simply cannot be accurately expected.
As you find, in turbulence, that everything happening is beyond what can be expected, it is easy to slip into a state in which there are simply no limits at all to what you imagine may be about to happen. It is easy to think that the next motion will throw the plane into an uncontrollable plunge.
Though turbulence is chaotic, the chaos is restricted to turbulence. The plane is, in fact, still on autopilot. The plane remains fully responsive to any input the pilots make to the autopilot. They can make the plane climb, descent, turn right, turn left, speed up, or slow down.
The pilots are most likely sipping coffee. They are most certainly not holding onto the controls for dear life, as you may have seen in the movies. On large planes, in fact, the autopilot is toned down to be more relaxed, and not try to correct for every motion caused by turbulence. Why? Because all the ups and downs tend to average out, leaving the plane at the same altitude it was at before the turbulence began.
Produce a “turbulence chunk” deliberately
Turbulence is no problem for pilots because they have a “turbulence chunk”. If you can produce a “turbulence chunk” you simply will stop having trouble with turbulence. You won’t even notice it. How can you do this?
Next time you fly, take along pen and paper. When in turbulence, write down as quickly as it happens, the ups and downs of turbulence. If you can, try to indicate the intensity of each up and each down, perhaps by the size of the word or by some exclamation marks. The aim is this: if you can move into experiencing turbulence as if you were a scientist studying some interesting phenomena, you actually will be able to create a turbulence chunk to store in your mind.
Once stored, the RAS will no longer place you on alert when turbulence is present.
Change the context to non-threatening
Marlene Dietrich – an actress in the 1930s and 40s and international stage show performer into the 1970s – depended on the RAS for her success. She said a woman should never allow a man to really know her; capturing and holding a man’s attention required being unpredictable. Being unexpectable activated her man’s RAS, telling him to pay attention, and – no doubt – raised his heart rate, something he might interpret as love.
Next time you are in turbulence, instead of thinking it is caused by Mother Nature, imagine a giant Marlene Dietrich up there, with a cigarette in her long-stemmed cigarette holder, and blowing smoke around aimlessly in the sky.
Put the RAS alert into the Strengthening Exercise
Begin the Strengthening Exercise. Recapture a moment of empathic connectedness with another person. Then, find a way to – at a level you can feel, but not be overwhelmed by – that feeling you get when the RAS tells you to pay attention, raises your heart rate, quickens your breathing and causes you to tense up.
It is important to bring this into your awareness at just the right level. Too much feeling will get in the way of returning quickly to the moment of empathic connectedness. Too little will not be enough to establish the protective psychological link between an RAS alert and the moment of empathic connectedness.
You can increase the feeling of the RAS alert by re-living a moment in which it caused you to pay attention. You can decrease the feeling of the RAS alert by distancing yourself from the situation by picturing the situation as a black-and-white photo on the page of a newspaper or magazine, or on a black-and-white small TV set.
If you need to reduce the feeling from the RAS alert, you may find it easier to imagine a comic book in which a comic book character is in a situation that causes him or her (not you) to become alarmed.
Whichever you use – newspaper, magazine, TV, or comic book – insert it into the situation where you experienced the moment of empathic connectedness.
Then, of course, once you do get the awareness of the RAS alert, instantly return your focus fully on the moment of empathic connectedness.
Understand turbulence better
Though understanding – alone – is not enough to stop the problem, when used together with the other measures listed above, difficulty with turbulence can be ended. Gain a thorough understanding by reviewing – or purchasing – the “How Flying Works” DVDs.
What won’t work.
Sure, you dislike turbulence. Dislike of it causes you to do your best to push awareness of it out of your mind. Doing that perpetuates the problem because, as long as you try to keep it out of your mind, your mind cannot form a turbulence “chunk”.
What works is the opposite.
Bring turbulence into your awareness so you can – deliberately – produce a “turbulence-chunk”. Once you bite the bullet and establish the “turbulence chunk”, problems with turbulence will be a thing of the past.
Too many unfiltered items at one time.
A few words need to be said about what happens when many things are going on for which the RAS can find no matching “chunk”. Since the RAS ordinarily filters out things that don’t need to be attended to, and lets you focus just on one thing that may be a problem, what do you suppose happens when the RAS finds there is not just one thing – but several things – that need to be brought to your attention? You get overwhelmed and may panic.
Keep that from happening.
Organize a strategy ahead of time to limit the number of things in your environment so the RAS does not let too many through. For example, in the “Take Me Along” video or audio clips, when we get to the airport, we stop and do a special exercise which helps you get used to being at the airport. Now, being at the airport is not – in itself – very stressful. But for anyone who is not frequently at an airport, it obviously presents a great deal of stimuli of various kinds, and the RAS will not have a matching “chuck” for several of them.
Thus, when you enter the airport, you are inescapably bombarded. That’s why we stop, and get used to the visual information. Then we focus solely on the auditory information. Next, we focus on the tactile information. We let the RAS form new “chunks” about each and every unexpected and new piece of data BEFORE going toward the airplane. This sequence lets us get our stress level back close to zero so we bring as little stress as possible with us as we head toward the airplane.
Set up a strategy in advance.
Whenever you are going to be placing yourself in a new environment, an unfamiliar environment, or an environment full of stimuli, set up a plan on how you will approach that environment so that the rate at which you encounter the stimuli for which there is no “chunk” is under your control.
And, if possible, anticipate the stimuli you will encounter. Put them into the Strengthening Exercise so that when you encounter them, you will have each of them linked with to an empathic experience with some special person in your life.
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