Open your Reticular Activating System!

May 19, 2011  •  Leave a Comment
What has the Reticular Activating System got to do with photography? What in god's name is it? Why should I care?

The Reticular Activating System is actually a filter at the base of our brain that prevents information, deemed irrelevant to us, from sending us into sensory overload. It essentially checks all our senses all the time and makes us aware of what it thinks we should know about and hides from us information it thinks we don't need to know about.

It was explained to me in a way which I think is very interesting. Think of a young mother who lives in a house under the flight path of an airport. At night there are planes regularly flying overhead making a level of noise that, in theory, should wake her up. But they don't. The Reticular Activating System says to her unconscious mind "you don't need to worry about this, stay asleep". But if her newborn baby makes a sound much lower than that of the planes the Reticular Activating Section says "you need to be aware of this, wake up".

This is one of the reasons why, when we're looking to buy a new car, we suddenly see that make of car all over the place. It's also why we see lots of pregnant women immediately after someone we know gets pregnant. In both cases it's like they've suddenly appeared out of nowhere. They haven't. The filter stopped us from seeing them in the first place and has been forced open in the second.

So what does this have to do with photography? For me it has more to do with photography projects. Let me explain.

One of my long-term projects is called "Ghost Houses of the Prairies". This is a collection of abandoned farmhouses from Kansas in the USA. Many of the houses I come up against are 'nearly' abandoned, they still have people living in them. I'm not interested in these kinds of houses. So how do I know? Well there are clues such as broken windows, screens hanging at an angle, doors half open, a tile or 2 missing from the roof, a hole in one of the walls. Any one of these is not a guarantee of an abandoned house, but a combination of them usually is. You'd expect, though, that I could only spot these up close and not from a distance. But I can spot these houses now from a mile or more away. My Reticular Activating System is open to all of these clues and tells me when I "need to be aware of this".

One amazing way it came together for me lately was on a fruitless trip 360 miles out (1 way!!) from base along Interstate 70 in northern Kansas. I was on my way back from a disappointing find in Hays (that's another story altogether!) and was heading on the long journey back. About 60 miles in I spotted a collapsed barn to the right of the highway. Now I'm not interested in barns and would normally ignore them, but my Reticular Activating System said ""be aware of this, abandoned barns may have abandoned houses near them". Almost without realising it I went into auto-mode. The next off-ramp was fast approaching (probably the last one for 10 miles or more) but I was ready to come off immediately and by the time I hit it I was already thinking of how to get there "go right, go right, go right" was on my mind. Kansas is pretty much laid out on a grid system so this would probably work. Well it did! I found a fantastic specimen... and then another and then another and then another! 4 in total less that a mile from each other.

But my Reticular Activating System wasn't prepared to let go. It said later, after I came back to Ireland "4 so close together is unusual". So I went back the next month and found 3 more, and a couple of months later 5 more!

I now call this my "Elephants Graveyard". All because I forced my Reticular Activating System to open up.

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