Have you heard of a person’s reticular activating system? Their whaaat??? If you are presenting educational or informational material to an audience, you can use each person’s reticular activating system to improve retention of the material. The reticular activating system (RAS) is the part of a person’s brain that has the role of attention maker or attention breaker. Read how to liven your presentations by activating your audience’s reticular activating systems.
When a learning environment becomes routine, ie familiar and repetitive, the RAS takes on the role of attention breaker. It filters the incoming information, decides there is nothing significant to pay attention to, and allows the listener to switch off – to daydream, to think about unrelated things, or even (aagh!) to fall asleep.
When the environment changes from the familiar, the RAS becomes the attention maker. It directs the learner’s brain to consciously pay attention. The RAS prevents a person from suffering information overload. It filters out the routine from your conscious mind. An example is your daily travel to work. You probably don’t even remember your trip to work yesterday because your RAS allowed your active mind to move to other things.
The RAS also works the other way. For instance, if you buy a certain make and model of car, in the early stages of ownership the RAS will direct you to notice every other car on the road that is the same make and model as yours. Also, the RAS acts to wake you in the middle of the night from a deep sleep to enable you to go to the bathroom.
The Reticular Activating System
Reticular means “net or web-like.” The RAS is a net-like formation of nerve cells and their connections lying deep within the brain stem, between the brain and the spinal cord.
Importantly, the RAS is not involved in interpreting the quality or type of sensory input. Instead, it activates the entire cerebral cortex with energy, waking it up, increasing its level of arousal and readiness for interpreting incoming information and preparing the brain for appropriate action.
You will notice in the diagram on the right that specific sensory information comes into the RAS and the outflow goes to the entire cortex of the brain, waking it up and preparing it for the work is has to do.
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. In understanding this part of the brain’s function, you can liven your presentations by activating your audience’s reticular activating systems.
The RAS is involved in almost everything we do
All learning requires at least a minimal level of arousal in order to attend, concentrate, remember and put learning into memory storage.
The ability to regulate emotions, which often feed into behavioral issues, also depends upon sufficient levels of cortical arousal to inhibit impulses and to control strong emotions. Sharon Linde from Study.com explains further:
While it may be a fairly small part of your brain, the RAS has a very important role: it’s the gatekeeper of information that is let into the conscious mind. This little bit of brain matter is responsible for filtering the massive amounts of information your sensory organs are constantly throwing at it and selecting the ones that are most important for your conscious mind to pay attention to. Why do we need this little gatekeeper? Well, your senses are constantly feeding so much information to your brain that you can’t possibly pay attention to all of it. The RAS never gets a break!
Try to see just how much information you pick up every minute. Take ten seconds and listen to every sound around you that you can perceive…you’ll be surprised at what you miss on a regular basis, but this is because your RAS decides what is important and what can be safely ignored. This doesn’t just happen with sounds. Our skin is roughly 20 square feet that abounds with around a million nerve cells detecting pressure, pain, temperature, and location. And a human eye captures more than 300 megapixels of visual information every second!
Despite all of this sensory information, it’s estimated that the conscious mind can only handle slightly more than 100 pieces of information every second. There’s a tremendous amount of paring down that needs to happen between your senses and your conscious mind. Your RAS is the way evolution has decided to handle this excessive information problem. It is uniquely suited to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant pieces of information. For example, it distinguishes between the honk of a car right next to you and one far down the street, or it tells a husband, ‘Unless you want a fight, you better pay attention to what your wife just said!’
Not only does it do all of that, the RAS also plays an important role in motivation and goal setting. Not bad for something tiny nestled close to your brain stem!
How the RAS helps organizations to head towards their goals
As individuals, people can program the RAS to pay attention to specific information when they think it will be useful to them. If communicators can create a specific picture of a goal in employees’ conscious minds, the RAS will then pass this on to the subconscious minds of those employees – which will then help them to achieve a goal. It does this by bringing their attention to all the relevant information that otherwise might have remained as ‘background noise’.
This is relevant to employee engagement (People Lab, 2021) because having a clear vision, or a strategic narrative, is a key enabler of employee engagement. Employees can develop a clear, compelling vision of where the organization is heading, and why, which is critical for engagement and for business success.
For instance, many of us have heard the story about the janitor at NASA explaining to President Kennedy that he was ‘helping to put a man on the moon’, not simply just sweeping the floor. This story brings to life an image of how seeing a bigger purpose for one’s work than just the tasks at hand can make employees more engaged and satisfied in their work…seeing such bigger purpose would serve both their personal and the organizational goals (Both-Nwabuwe, Dijkstra & Beersma, 2017)
The RAS can be put into positive use in the workplace when team members are gathered together to share stories about their work experiences at the organization. They are asked to recall how they felt when they joined, times when they have been proud, their most memorable moments, and many other topics. These stories help employees understand the difference they make, to appreciate that ‘sweeping the floor’ makes a contribution to an overall purpose – like ‘putting a man on the moon’. This helps teams to develop their strategic narrative, making it likely to resonate with them.
How to liven your audience members’ reticular activating systems
The importance to presenters is clear. When you want learners or even management audiences to pay close attention to important information, you have to catch the attention of the RAS by changing something in the environment. You can even do this in making presentations to senior executives. Do something a little different that will make them sit up and take more notice, especially if your presentation is one of several they have to sit through in a prolonged meeting. To kick off possible ideas to gain the attention of those present, read through the ideas below and see if you may be able to adapt an idea so you make persuasive presentations to senior executives in this meeting and in others in future. But don’t do anything gimmicky, or it will backfire.
1. Simply change your presentation and teaching methods
- Vary the tone, speed or loudness of your voice.
- Move around the room somewhat as you talk. (But don’t overdo it and cause distraction.)
- Gesture while you speak, using animated hand and arm movements or facial expressions.
- Use a story to illustrate important concepts.
- Ask a question and then pause for at least 5 seconds for answers.
- Use humor or an anecdote.
- Use topic-related visual aids as you talk, eg photographs, cartoons or charts in addition to your screen presentation.
You can change the activities you use to further involve the audience:
- Get the audience to participate in short review activities to discuss what you have presented.
- Ask the participants to stand and stretch if they have been sitting for some time.
- Request the attendees to walk outside with their audience neighbor to discuss what they have learned.
- Throw a soft toy to different members of the audience, asking each of those persons to answer a simple question about the content of your talk.
- Get them to draw simple diagrams on a whiteboard to represent what they have learned.
- Ask them to discuss a question about the material you have delivered.
- Set up a quick quiz game to cover what they have learned.
2. Change the physical environment of the venue
- Change the layout of chairs from theater style to classroom style or to round tables if your presentation is not focused on the one big screen in front of the audience.
- Add aromas such as lavender, citrus or apple to create a different atmosphere.
- Provide snacks and confectionery for people who can answer simple quiz questions about the content of your talk.
- Decorate the walls with charts, mobiles or streamers.
- Create a colorful centerpiece for each table with colored paper, confectionery, soft toys etc.
By taking a bold, creative initiative you can liven your presentations by activating your audience’s reticular activating systems.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.