We’ve all heard about confirmation bias, where we tend to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or support things we believe to be true. But did you know some of that may be physiological? We have a filter in our brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is a group of neurons in your brain stem that mediate your behavior, as well as arousal, consciousness and motivation. As part of the filter function, the RAS works to determine which of the information you receive you pay attention to.
When you hear something, it is sent to your RAS where it is filtered in a process known as sensory gating. Think of this like a gatekeeper of what your mind processes. But some information, often contradictory information, is not sent to be processed, as your RAS keeps your attention directed toward information you already possess that better aligns with your beliefs, which is easier for you to process and wrap your mind around. The most common way we experience the RAS in action is when we hear our name in a crowded noisy room full of people. Our RAS knows our name is important, so it lets it through the filter while discarding all the other random conversations that are hitting our ear.
I believe that my friend is very often angry. If I believe that to my core, what will happen is my reticular activating system will filter out the times that she’s not angry. Meaning my friend may have a lot of days of smiles and laughter, but my brain may not remember them. So, I convince myself that she’s a very angry person.”
Now this cuts both ways for Mormons.
A faithful member of the church will have a RAS that will keep him from remembering the terrible Mission President he had in Brazil, the first time he when to the Temple and was creeped out by the Washing and Anointing, and that article in the newspaper that said Mormons were not Christians.
On the other side, the angry ex-Mormon who believes the Church is evil, will not remember the kind home teacher that helped repair their family’s broken pipe on a Sunday afternoon, the fun times she had at girls camp, or the kindly bishop who mourned with her at her mother’s death.
So are we doomed to being stuck in our beliefs, or is there a way to hack our RAS to be more open minded? As I looked up the RAS on Google, I found lots of articles and YouTube videos how to open this filter up. Most centered on on self-help, and self actualization. I’ll leave that to the reader to Google RAS and read for yourselfer, but I found a couple that made sense.
The first step in changing this filter is to recognize it is there, and to understand that your core beliefs are only true for you. Recognizing that your reality is based on your perceptions rather than on concrete truths can leave you room to consider more possibilities may exist.
The next is to have an intention. If you think most people are bad drivers, tell yourself you are going to look for the good drivers (even your mother-in-law), and this will open the filter to allow good drivers to be remembered. . Now this could be dangerous for a TBM, who makes it their goal to understand why their brother left the church. If they start investigating with an open mind, knowing their RAS will try to filter out the things they are reading, some of the bad things about the Church will get through their filer. They may remember that Joseph Smith married a 14 year old girl, or that the Book of Abraham is nothing that it proports to be.
How does this help you understand those in and out of the church? Have you seen this filter work, for good or bad, in your own life?