By Morella Devost
One of the hardest things to do in life is to get a fresh perspective. No matter how open-minded we’d like to be, the odds are stacked against our ability to change points of view.
Why? Because the unique filter with which we each see the world is largely unconscious to us, and because our brains excel at picking out data from the environment that supports what we already believe; the rest remains invisible to us.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have estimated that only around 5% of the brain’s function is engaged in conscious awareness. The remaining 95% is busy with tending to bodily functions, running automatic subconscious behaviors (like dressing and eating), unconscious information processing (comparing the present moment with experiences from the past), and processing many thousands of bits of information that our nervous systems perceive at any given moment.
The fact that the mind is mostly unconscious is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the positive side, it makes us very efficient at a great number of tasks that can be performed without consciously thinking about them once we learn them — like tying your shoes, typing, or driving. On the negative side, our subconscious mind makes us less flexible in our views and less capable of responding in ways that are different from the past.
Enter the Reticular Activating System (RAS), a network of nerve pathways in the brainstem that connect the brain to the spinal cord. The role of your RAS is to filter the hundreds of thousands of stimuli you receive every living moment, and to bring up to your awareness only the bits of information that are either relevant to what you are consciously engaged with, necessary for your survival (i.e. a tree is about to fall on you), OR that support existing beliefs and past experiences.
For example, the work of your RAS is what allows you to read a book at a busy airport. Your conscious mind can focus on the story you’re reading while you tune-out almost everything else. But if a friend spots you at the gate and calls your name, you lift your head. Your RAS is aware of everything at all times, but 95% of the stimuli are irrelevant to the task at hand and therefore remain unconscious. Only the bits of information that are relevant to you are fed to the frontal cortex: the book and the sound of your name.
Another example is the “yellow VW Bug” phenomenon. Let’s say that one day you decide to buy a new car. You go to a used car lot, fall in love with a bright yellow VW Bug, and you buy it on the spot. No sooner have you driven your new car off the lot that you start seeing all of the other yellow VW Bugs on the street! Where did they all come from? That’s your RAS at work. They were always there, you just never noticed them before because they got filtered out. Now that your new car is in your conscious awareness, you start spotting all of the other cars just like yours.
Now, because your RAS only feeds your conscious mind the bits of information that confirm what you already believe or are conscious of, your way of thinking ends up becoming quite rigid and stale. In other words, you perceive the world around you through a filter that mostly proves you right.
Neither you nor I perceive the world as it is. We perceive it as we are.
Your childhood and life experiences shaped all of your beliefs, your interpretations of the world and of the people around you. Over the course of your life, your RAS has consistently fed your conscious mind the bits of information that support and strengthen those beliefs.
By this point, I hope you can start to see how the efficiency of your RAS can get you in all kinds of trouble. It can cause you to perpetuate a life-long argument with your spouse, it can fuel your interpretations of your kids’ temperaments, and it can get you into really acrimonious political debates on Facebook. Your RAS strengthens your point of view.
In politics and difficult relationships especially, people will very quickly see the data that proves them right, and therefore dig their heels in. They fail to see the data that proves the other side might also be right.
Thinking “outside the box” to get a fresh perspective is not an automatic, natural thing for us. It requires deliberate intent, practice, and most importantly, a willingness to be proven wrong, which will bruise the ego. But what we discover from our willingness to be wrong is that it leads to greater connection and mutual understanding, as well as the possibility of discovering a new solution to a problem.
How can we exercise the muscle of our subconscious mind and RAS to open up to fresh perspectives?
As a hypnotherapist and counselor, I can tell you that open-ended questions are powerful. They are like a mental rawhide to throw at the bulldog of your subconscious mind.
Throw an open-ended question out into the field of your awareness and then, instead of trying to find a logical answer, let your subconscious mind start gnawing at it in the background. You’ll be surprised by an insight out of nowhere, and sometimes you’ll experience an instantaneous shift in perspective.
You will have unleashed the power of your RAS, can access far more information than your conscious mind can ever grasp. So if you release a question into the void, your RAS will start pulling information into your consciousness to answer it.
What types of questions? Here are some ideas: How can I start thinking differently about this? How can I see this from a different perspective? What qualities or valid points in the other person’s perspective am I failing to see?
Notice that if your opinions about certain things are very fixed (i.e. politics, your terrible boss, your ex-husband), you might be unwilling to ask these questions. You might look at the question and instantly think, “But I’m right about this!” If so, I entreat you, my friend. Being hesitant to ask these questions is a good sign your mental box is getting quite rigid.
Here are some other questions: What if there’s evidence out there that proves me wrong? What if there’s a wiser perspective on this? What would be a more elevated way to view and solve this issue?
And if you’re ready for some pro-level questions, you can open the inquiry into what your points of view reveal about your subconscious vulnerabilities: What is this situation telling me about my fears? What emotions are getting triggered? What do these feelings reveal about what I believe? Where did I get that belief?
All of these questions can ignite a magical sort of mental compost. They help us turn our stale, repetitive nature into fertile soil, rich with the wisdom of the past but now ready to give birth to the seeds of new ideas, new beliefs, and a new way of experiencing the world. Rather than endlessly perpetuating a limited, self-validating existence, we churn our life into an infinite field of possibilities — from dating, to health and healing, to career pathways, to political truths.
In our current political reality, at the dawn of a new presidential campaign that stands to be as ugly and polarized as ever, it behooves us to turn our mental compost; to stretch into the aspiration of open-mindedness and a fresh way of engaging with each other. We owe it to our planet, our countries, and ourselves. Otherwise, we risk losing our sanity, our health, and fueling an already combustible, stale political landscape.
Morella Devost facilitates profound transformation for people who want to thrive in health and life. She has master’s degrees in Counseling from Columbia University, and is also a Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP facilitator, and Holistic Health Coach. She is also the host of the Thrive With Morella show.