Not So Fast. . .
In 1995, astronomer Bob Williams pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a postage stamp-size patch of sky filled with absolutely nothing. It was completely black. For 100 hours between Dec. 18 and 28, Hubble stared at this lonely patch of sky near the Big Dipper’s handle that was only about 1/30th as wide as the full moon. In total, the telescope took 342 pictures of the region. The images were processed and combined, then colored, and 17 days later, released to the public.
It turned out that the “nothing” Hubble looked at was actually packed with more than 3,000 galaxies, some roughly 12 billion years old. The smudges of light that leapt from the final composite image increased the estimated size of the Universe five-fold.i
What we can learn from this, in part, is what we perceive with our senses is an insignificant fraction of what’s really out there. For example, the human eye can only see about 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum. That’s not very much. Just because we can’t sense it, does not mean that it does not exist. What’s more, even when our senses can perceive the data that’s coming in, most of the time this information is filtered out.
Harvard psychologist Jeffrey Statinover and neurophysiologist Joe Dispenza believe the brain receives an incomprehensible 400 billion bits of information per second. As large as this number is, an incredibly small percentage of this raw data—only 2,000 bits per second—makes it to the conscious brain.ii
Two interrelated parts of the brain, the thalamus and a group of interconnected neuronal circuits called the Reticular Activating System or the RAS, act as the brain’s input switchboard. The thalamus and the RAS discard much of the sensory information and forward the rest to different areas of the brain.
The RAS is an area of tightly packed nerve fibers and cells containing nearly 70 percent of your brain’s estimated 200 billion nerve cells, 140 billion cells in total.iii
The RAS functions as the brain’s reducing valve, sometimes called an “attention filter.” Without this incredible information-sifting system, we would be overwhelmed by sensory input from the outside world.
This filtering process is known as “sensory gating.” Sensations from only one set of sense organs is allowed to pass at a time, while information from other senses is temporarily held back. In ways not yet fully understood, the brain prioritizes sensory input then signals the body’s sense receptors, telling them to hold all calls until the brain can get around to handling them, which is why a person who is highly stimulated (i.e. in a fight or playing a sport) might not immediately feel the pain when she has been hurt.
An example of the RAS in action is a new mother who lives next to a busy airport. Despite the constant roar of airplanes over the house, the mother always hears her baby in the next room even if he makes the smallest noise. She is tuned in to her baby’s voice, and the RAS filters out the airport racket. The RAS takes instructions from her conscious mind (“I need to hear my baby.”) and passes it on to her unconscious mind, which becomes diligent and alert to her request.
The RAS pushes relevant and pertinent information to the conscious mind. If you buy a Volvo, you suddenly start seeing other Volvos on the road. The Volvos have always been there, but you didn’t notice them before.
Your agent asks you to write Amish fiction. You didn’t even know the genre existed. You start doing research and suddenly you notice Amish books at Walmart and Amish specials on TV. Amish books were there before, but they were filtered out of your consciousness by the RAS. Now, the RAS lets the information through.
This experience of enhanced observation and awareness is known as the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.”iv You’re not crazy. It’s just a manifestation of the RAS doing its job.
“Your automatic creative mechanism (the RAS). . . operates in terms of goals and end results. Once you give it a definite goal to achieve, you can depend upon its automatic guidance system to take you to that goal much better than ‘you’ ever could by conscious thought. You supply the goal by thinking in terms of end results. Your automatic mechanism then supplies the means.”v
The best way to program the RAS is by putting one’s goals in written form, and by formulating questions and then writing about them. When we write about our questions and problems, the RAS goes to work to find answers, and it delivers the answers as Aha! Moments.
[iii]Ness, Elaine. The Reticular Activating System – Your Brain’s Screening Device,, Aug 28, 2007
[iv]Kershner, Kate. What’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?
[v]Maltz, Maxwell. Psycho-Cybernetics, TarcherPerigee Pub. 2016. P. 41.