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Experiment Sheds Light on a Part of Your Brain You Should Get to Know Better


A few years back, the Washington Post designed a social experiment to see if commuters would stop a few minutes to listen to one of the worlds top violinists.


Joshua Bell brought his priceless Stradivarius to a DC Metro station and performed anonymously for 45 minutes. He played some of the violin's most hauntingly beautiful and technically challenging pieces, and after six minutes of playing, someone finally stopped to listen. As the Post's Gene Weingarten described

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run – for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

The performance was captured by a hidden camera, and a truncated version was posted at the paper's website and on YouTube (embedded below). The video keeps the music in normal time but speeds up the visuals to show the full performance – and the scant attention it received.

The article and video prompted a lot of handwringing. Some took it as proof that Americans are a nation of uncultured swine (as the headline, "Pearls Before Breakfast," clearly insinuated). Others reached the same judgment but restricted their verdict to federal workers in Washington. Still others dismissed the experiment as a contrived effort to reach a snooty conclusion. Who can expect people rushing to work to stop and listen to anything?

A follow-up online story included 75 emails sent to the Post. Some were quite lengthy but none of them mentioned a common brain phenomenon that helps to explain the results. This feature of the brain suggests that most people weren't ignoring Bell's performance so much as they didn't even perceive it; their reticular activating systems had screened him out entirely. And if you're not aware of this system and how it works, you should be. It has a lot more influence on your life than you could imagine.

Perceiving value and threats, and not much else

The reticular activating system functions like a spam filter for the mind. Our senses receive far more simultaneous input than our conscious minds can absorb. If we lacked a way to stem the flood of data, we'd get brain lock. That's why the reticular activating system helps to decide what input we notice, ensuring that our conscious mind gets a small slice of sensory input at any one time.

Like any good filter, the system is governed by rules. Anything perceived as a threat gets full and immediate access to our awareness. Entrée is also granted to information considered valuable, and the subconscious mind is the arbiter of that value. Stimuli deemed uninteresting and nonthreatening don't get through. We don't perceive them at all, at least not consciously.

There's an often-cited example of this phenomenon: An exhausted mother can still sleep through a jackhammer outside her window, but she'll startle awake if her baby begins to whimper. Likewise in a crowded room, the loud buzz of conversations sounds like white noise, but if someone mentions your name, those all-important words pierce the din and grab your attention.

(The other day, I was explaining the reticular activating system to one of my sons, John-Henry, while his younger brother Paul and a friend watched TV in another room. John-Henry seemed to be listening to me intently, until a barely audible remark from his brother registered on him. "Paul!" he shouted. "Did you just say that Wendy's has new french fries on the menu?" I smiled and said, "Well now I know what your subconscious mind considers valuable.")

The importance of this filter goes well beyond what you notice or fail to notice in passing. Its effects on the way we see the world and interact with people are profound.

Remember – we only tend to perceive what we value. So if helping other people makes you happy, opportunities to be useful will seize your attention. If your definition of happiness revolves around your own status and prestige, your radar will be attuned to praise and compliments and on guard for insults or slights.

In the near term, we're each at the mercy of our reticular activating system. In the long term, we can choose to build a new system and a new way of seeing the world.

Moreover, we value information that ratifies our pre-existing beliefs. If you decide that Sally is a wonderful human being, you will observe every facet of her charms. If you think she is a conniving, self-centered shrew, you will notice every fault that shores up this judgment. In both cases, you may fail to even perceive any input that contradicts your belief.

The blind spots that permit the brain to focus on priorities can be temporary, habitual, or permanent. In the Joshua Bell experiment, I suspect there was ample situational deafness. Many people who would have loved to hear him play were simply distracted.

But habitual blind spots and deeply ingrained desires are hard to remove. They're embedded in your subconscious and were hammered there by long-standing habits of thought. These habits accrete and solidify, the way sediment turns to rock.

You can't change them, but you can slowly deposit new layers of thought that eventually cover the old ones. It's a challenging, long-term project, as Jim Berlucchi explained in two recent radio interviews. But the beneficial results make it well worth the effort.

In the near term, we're each at the mercy of our reticular activating system. In the long term, we can choose to build a new system and a new way of seeing the world. And although we all have to go through life with blinders – we're wired that way – we can choose if our blinders point downward, or outward, or upward – as high as Heaven.



John Keenan. "Experiment Sheds Light on a Part of Your Brain You Should Get to Know Better." The Spitzer Center (February 23, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of John Keenan and The Spitzer Center.

The Spitzer Center's mission is to strengthen culture, faith and spirit in Catholic organizations for the new evangelization.

The Author

John Keenan is a freelance writer and the editor of The Spitzer Center web site and newsletter.

Copyright © 2011 The Spitzer Center
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