When we pulled out of our parking spot to go to Easter dinner there was a lot going on. The sky was blue and a slight breeze blew. There were traffic noises from the large thoroughfare a couple of blocks away. Snow mounds, scraped from streets and stored in a vacant lot, had almost melted, leaving a mucky, dirty landscape. A woman picked up gardening tools from her front lawn. Several houses away was a boy wearing a purple sweatshirt.
If I’d had no way to filter and prioritize that information, plus what my sig other was saying, plus my transient worry about how the potato casserole in the trunk was travelling, I would have missed the most important detail. That was the boy in the purple sweatshirt abruptly turning his bike. He was either going down the sidewalk or across the street into our car’s path. By the time I realized he was headed down the sidewalk, my sig other had already slowed the car to a crawl.
We didn’t leave home thinking, “Watch for boys wearing purple sweatshirts and riding bikes because they may not be aware of traffic.” Years behind the wheel sensitizes drivers to kids+bikes+cars = Danger, Will Robinson. When the kid+bike+car info triad reached a small section of our brainstems—the reticular activation system—the brain got rid of blue sky, potato casserole, traffic noises, garden tools, and melting snow. It yelled, “Pay attention to that kid on the bike!”
I didn’t even know I had a reticular activation system until last week when a local writer talked about solving plotting problems. One suggestions was to put the request out to the world that we had a plot problem. When we did this we programmed our reticular activation gate, which in turn, heightened our sensitivity to the world providing a solution.
My first thought was Cool. My second was Wait a minute. I know a lot about the brain, from nursing; from authors, artists, and other creative people talking and writing about creativity.
How had I missed hearing about this cool brain feature that supposedly comes as standard human equipment? If something sounds too good to be true, chances are that it is.
I went to the Internet. From the neuro-technical sites I learned that the reticular activation gate is the part of our brain stems responsible for the sleep/awake switch and the conscious/coma switch. It does filter and prioritize information, but the prioritization is based on which information represents the greatest danger. Potato casserole = low danger; kid+bike+car = high danger. Kid+bike+car wins.
It’s also possible to consciously program the gate for a forced attention span. I want to watch a trashy movie, but taxes are due by midnight, so I program my brain for form over flick.
Other sites I checked out worked from a high motivational, you can control your own life viewpoint. This part of the brain works this way because we say it does.
Who am I to say otherwise? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I’m going to take this one on faith. Maybe there are times the world does work this way because we say it does.
And that sleep/awake switch? It just might explain why sleeping on an idea sometimes provides a solution. Just a thought.
Quote for the week
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
~ Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish Poet, Novelist, Dramatist, and Critic