What is your “Reticular Activating System” and as a Christian why is it so important to train this brain system to be holy?
First off, I don’t claim to be a neuroscientist. If you want a deep scientific explanation of the Reticular Activating System (RAS), there are plenty of great resources online for this. For our purposes, I’m simply going to give a brief explanation of this brain system and then spend the majority of our time together on how to biblically train your RAS to be holy.
So What Is Your Reticular Activating System (RAS)?
Here’s an excerpt from one article that explained this complicated system in an easy-to-understand way:
“The reticular activating system, or RAS, is a piece of the brain that starts close to the top of the spinal column and extends upwards around two inches. It has a diameter slightly larger than a pencil. All of your senses (except smell, which goes to our brain’s emotional center) are wired directly to this bundle of neurons that’s about the size of your little finger.
Often, the RAS is compared to a filter or a nightclub bouncer that works for your brain. It makes sure your brain doesn’t have to deal with more information than it can handle. Thus, the reticular activating system plays a big role in the sensory information you perceive daily.”1
Another resource states:
“. . . the RAS seeks information that validates your beliefs. It filters the world through the parameters you give it, and your beliefs shape those parameters. If you think you are bad at giving speeches, you probably will be. If you believe you work efficiently, you most likely do. The RAS helps you see what you want to see and in doing so, influences your actions.
Some people suggest that you can train your RAS by taking your subconscious thoughts and marrying them to your conscious thoughts. They call it ‘setting your intent.’ This basically means that if you focus hard on your goals, your RAS will reveal the people, information and opportunities that help you achieve them.”2
Regardless of if you understand or even believe in the RAS, experience has taught us that the more time we spend doing something, the more easily our brains notice relevant information.
For example, years ago I had my roof replaced. Suddenly my brain was hyper aware of all the roofs everywhere. I found myself admiring new roofs and judging old roofs in need of repair. Previously, however, I never once noticed any roof for any reason.
The same thing happened to me when I first started rock climbing. Suddenly everywhere I looked there was a climbing route. The sides of buildings, knotty trees, and kid’s playgrounds all seemed to be screaming out to my brain, “Climb these holds.”
When we decided to give my daughter the middle name Elizabeth, suddenly I noticed the name of a street I drove down almost every day, Elizabeth Lane. Because that name was now on my mind, that was the first time that street sign caught my attention.
Our brains are always filtering out irrelevant information and filtering in relevant information. But it seems are unconscious mind determines what is relevant for us by the choices we consistently are making with our conscience minds. Hopefully you can see why this is so important as Christians.
When we consciously focus on worldly, sinful things with our minds, we are training our RAS to subconsciously filter more unholiness into our conscience. But if we consciously focus on good things, we will be training our RAS to subconsciously let good things into our conscience.
With all that said, here are 3 biblical ways you can train your Reticular Activating System to be more holy.
1. Spend Time Studying God’s Word in the Morning Before You Jump Into the Day
I can’t tell you how many people have commented on my videos over the years saying something like this, “Mark, this is amazing. I just read the verse you quoted. God is really speaking to me!”
I usually quote a variety of Bible verses in each of my videos. But God used these specific verses to speak to these specific people because they had been spending time in God’s word already. You can’t get a double confirmation about something from God if you didn’t first get an original confirmation from God. The more time we spend in God’s word, the more we are training our brains to notice God’s word and biblical principles in other places.
I know many people say it doesn’t matter when you read the Bible as long as you are doing it. And in some ways, I do agree with that. Some of our brains are more awake at night and thus it makes sense to study the Scriptures at night. With that said, I do believe there is an added value of studying the Scriptures in the morning.
First off, our brains tend to reset at night. While it’s true, from my understanding, that if you study something right before bed that sleeping can help that information take a deep root in your brain. It’s also true that when you wake up in the morning, there is something in our spirits that know this is a fresh start. Each day is like a mini new beginning.
Therefore, to me, it just makes sense that you start each day with God’s word. It’s extremely powerful to saturate your mind with Scripture before you scroll on your phone, before you rush out the door to work, and before you start negotiating the day with your loved ones. When we consciously focus our brains on the Bible, we are training our RAS to subconsciously focus on biblical things throughout the day.
Your brain is going to make a million unconscious choices to filter out and filter in information. Thus, focusing your mind on Scripture is a powerful way to train this filtering system to be holy.
As Psalm 143:8 states, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”
2. Prayerfully Meditate Over How You Hope to Respond During Triggers Moments
One tactic many people recommend for training your RAS is imagining future success in the areas you want to succeed in. Many athletes practice this mental tool. They visualize themselves seeing a curve ball, tracking it perfectly, and hitting it flawlessly out of the stadium. They visualize themselves hitting the last shot of the game just before the buzzer. Or the coach visualizes as many different situations as he can and then thinks of different plays to run for his team.
I remember years back praying that God would give me more opportunities to evangelize to people. Suddenly, everywhere I went I felt like God was opening doors to talk about him. While I do believe God was opening more doors for me because I prayed about this, I also realized that many of these opportunities had always been in my life. By praying for open doors to evangelize, God had made my spirit more aware of the opportunities that I normally just subconsciously ignored.
These principles can be used against us too. When used improperly, our imaginations can be used to teach our RAS an unhealthy confirmation bias. If you imagine going to work and everyone hating you, it will feel like everyone hates you because that’s the information you have trained your RAS to let in. If you spend a lot of time in lustful thoughts, you are training your RAS to notice sexual content and to let that into your conscious mind. If you imagine yourself getting nervous and awkward around your crush, you will be more prone to feel this way when you see them next and your RAS filters this person into your mind.
As Christians, we don’t need to just imagine and use our mental energy positively, although that can be useful. We can do something much more powerful. We can meditate in prayer in the presence of God, preparing to act righteously during those moments we have traditionally acted unrighteous in. For example:
- If you struggle with gluttony, prayerfully meditate on eating a healthy amount of food and walking away from the fridge when you are full. Ask God to help you live this out.
- If you have traditionally struggled more at nighttime with sexual temptation, before the night even comes, spend time prayerfully imagining yourself making the right choice before you even actually need to make that choice. Ask God to help you live this out.
- If you struggle to respond kindly to rude people at work, before you even get to work, prayerfully meditate and imagine yourself acting kindly even when others are being rude. Ask God to help you live this out.
- If you struggle to walk through open doors that are good opportunities, imagine yourself saying yes next time. This will train your RAS to see open doors and respond positively. Ask God to help you live this out.
As Hebrews 5:14 teaches us, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Sanctification is a process, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that occurs through practice. And one way we can practice is through prayerfully training our minds in holiness (Romans 12:1-2).
3. Set Limits Around Your Entertainment Choices that Are Pleasing to God
One way we are training our RAS to filter information is by what we choose to look at. The more time you spend watching something or listening to something, the more your brain will unconsciously focus more on information relevant to this topic you are spending so much time on.
- This is why we need to be so careful about our entertainment choices. Yes, a show may have some funny parts, but if that show is full of people having premarital sex, your brain will start to become numb to this sin. Your RAS will then be untrained and it will not be helpful in keeping sexual content out of your conscious mind.
- Sure, some music may be extremely relaxing and enjoyable to listen to. But if the lyrics are disrespectful to the opposite sex, your RAS will become numb to this.
- And yes, hearing foul language is not the same thing as using foul language. But if you saturate your mind with unholy speech, you are training your RAS to let this kind of talk into your conscious mind.
As Jesus said in Matthew 6:22-23, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Be careful what you let in through your entertainment choices. You may think it’s not a big deal, but you are constantly training your RAS what to focus on and what not to focus on. As Colossians 3:2 states, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Why would God let an image of someone get stuck in your brain? Here’s an article where I cover that topic, 4 Reasons God Is Allowing Someone’s Image to Be Stuck in Your Brain.
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