Monday, March 22, 2010

Are there rocks on your beach?

In the various Personal Development workshops I run, I often tell the story of 'the rocks on the beach', as it's a great learning example about the power of beliefs and values to filter and constrain your reality. One of the workshop participants suggested they'd love to read it in my blog, so Jan, here's today's blog at your request :-)

No rocks on this beach

A couple of years ago I'd setup a 'Friends of the Park' volunteer group for our local National Park and as part of a working-bee we were refurbishing the lookout at the Surf beach in the Ninety Mile Beach Marine National Park. I was busily digging sand for a retaining wall with one of the other volunteers, when we came across a fairly large rock hidden deep in the sand. Now you have to understand that the Ninety Mile Beach is made up of over ninety miles of golden flowing sand, so it was with some surprise that I commented to my work partner "isn't it amazing how there are so many rocks on this beach, given it is such a large body of uninterrupted sand". My partner stopped digging, looked at me with confusion and exclaimed "What rocks? There are no rocks on the Ninety Mile Beach!"

Well, apart from the very obvious rock at our feet, I replied to her, "What are you talking about? There are rocks all over this beach. Just take a look. There's thousands of rocks amongst the shells and sea-wrack." We were constructing the new lookout quite some way from the water-line, up on the back dunes, high above the beach, so it wasn't easy to see just how many rocks were down on the beach. So I suggested she take a short walk and confirm the facts... there are lots of rocks on the Ninety Mile Beach.

She took a few small steps towards the beach and returned almost immediately. "No" she reiterated, "there are definitely no rocks on that beach. It's just shells and sand." No matter what I said, I could not convince her of the existence of any rocks. She was adamant and certain. It felt like something out of the Twilight Zone. And this woman was an intelligent, reasonable and educated person. But for her, the rocks were invisible. There were no rocks on her beach! Apparently, we didn't share the same beach, because wherever I looked, I could see rocks sitting amongst the shells. Hard rocks. Solid rocks. But there were no rocks on 'her' beach.

Next day I took a camera down to the same beach and recorded the existence of these 'invisible' rocks. You can see the image here:

Mapping our Reality Tunnel

Now I tell this story, as a real and graphic example of how people's beliefs and values filter their reality. As I'm sure you've read many times in this blog, we don't ever operate off the world, but instead our unconscious mind and neural circuitry creates a deleted, generalised and distorted map of reality -- our version of reality, or as Robert Anton Wilson, in his brilliant book 'Prometheus Rising' explains it, we live in our own Reality Tunnel.

This woman had taken early retirement from a Middle Management position in a large Organisation to make a 'sea-change' in her life. She was competent and capable. Yet, because she had a model of the Ninety Mile Beach that saw it as miles and miles of unbroken golden sands, she was unable to see the rocks. Thousands of rocks. Sure they were mixed amongst shells, drift wood and sea wrack. But nevertheless, there were rocks on that beach in 'reality', but just not in her 'reality'.

In the case of rocks on a beach, it's not too important one way or the other if you see them or not, though you wouldn't want to stub your toes on them. However, what happens when this same process occurs in other more critical areas of life. As a Middle Manager, with the working lives of many people under your command, not seeing the metaphorical 'rocks' in your environment could be very detrimental to success.

Why don't we see the rocks?

One of the key reasons that we don't see situations as they are, but instead confirm our biases by seeing them as we believe them to be, is because of the effects of beliefs and values on our Reticular Activating Systems (RAS). I've mentioned the RAS in previous blog entries. Let's drill into what it is and how it works a little more in this blog entry. By understanding how your brain and mind works, you empower yourself to be able to control and direct it and overcome its evolved and inbuilt propensities.

How the Reticular Activating System works

The RAS sits near the core of your brainstem and acts like a filter or way station for almost all the information that feeds into your brain from the outlying sensory nerves. It is responsible for ensuring that your brain isn’t swamped by useless and unimportant data and signals. The RAS only let’s through to the frontal lobes and higher centres of your brain the information that is deemed as important and salient.

For example, your RAS is involved in what is known in psychology as the ‘Cocktail Party Effect’. This is the effect you’ll have experienced when at a club, restaurant, party or bar; a noisy environment where it’s difficult to hear conversations. In order to pick out just the voice of one of your companions, your RAS manages to filter out that auditory signal from the blooming confusion of noise and voices around you. Whilst doing an excellent job of this, and without any conscious awareness on your part, your RAS also monitors other conversations for anything of importance or salience.

That's why, if someone three tables over, mentions your name, or starts speaking about something that is of significance to you, their voice or conversation will somehow jump out and come to your awareness. This is the cocktail party effect. Your RAS manages to filter out noise and bring to your conscious awareness anything important. An amazing and necessary feat.

The key to the RAS and its operation is salience and values. Your values, goals, fears, desires and beliefs direct and guide your RAS. If there’s something you strongly desire or value highly, either positively or negatively, then your RAS will notice examples of it and highlight it in your environment. These will then be incorporated into and magnified in your ongoing map of the world.

A Life Enhancing insight

The life enhancing insight here is that the more specifically you delineate and define your values, goals and dreams, the more your RAS will assist you in achieving them. It works like magic and is the basis for so called esoteric goal achievement techniques like ‘the secret’. The real secret is to focus and direct your powerful RAS by using the skills and techniques highlighted in the many entries of this blog.

The other important thing to note is the power of negative beliefs, values and fears to generate self-fulfilling prophecies. Remember that FEAR can often be seen as False Evidence Appearing Real. You need to beware the generalisations you've made about life and see the world as it currently stands and not from a biased model you formed in the past.

A sad and graphic example

Here's a sad and much more impactful example of what happens when your map of the world gets so distorted that you end up creating the very experience you fear. I came across this example in the news as I was thinking about this blog entry.

A migrant from a war-torn country collapsed after her life savings of up to $125,000 in cash were stolen with her handbag at her local supermarket in country Victoria. The 34-year-old woman was shopping in Mildura about 2pm (AEDT) on Sunday when her handbag was stolen from her trolley, police said.

Inspector Simon Clemence said there was $100,000 to $125,000 in the handbag, which the woman had been carrying with her "for quite some time". The woman has lived in Mildura since coming to Australia nine years ago and had been saving the money to buy a house, said Insp Clemence.

"She comes from a war-torn country where the banking system collapsed during a recent war." The woman had to be treated in hospital for shock after the theft.

"While police were questioning her she quite literally collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. She's effectively lost her life savings and she's totally devastated," Insp Clemence said.

This poor woman so feared losing her money that she carried it around, leaving herself vulnerable to theft and loss of the very money she feared losing. It's a sad story. From her experience in her country of origin, she had built a belief that banks could not be trusted. Coming to a country like Australia, where our banks are so much safer, and certainly safer than a handbag in a shopping trolley, she could not see the rocks on her new beach. She was still operating from a belief that 'all banks are high risk'. Her belief led her to create a self-fulfilling prophecy and bought about the very risk and reality she feared.

Your map becomes your territory

This is part of what makes beliefs, attitudes and values so powerful. They orient your unconscious mind, your experience, decisions, behaviours and ultimately your reality. I’m sure you’ll have had an experience of your RAS doing this. Beliefs and values are powerful. Learn to notice, control and design them so that they are life enhancing rather than life denying. Make sure your beliefs and generalisations are as accurate and useful as possible.

Most importantly... make sure you see the rocks on your beach! They're quite delightful and can be very life enhancing when you learn from them.

Want to learn more, get a copy of my book: Avoiding the Enemies to HAPPINESS!

life enhancing wishes,

Here's another life enhancing and fascinating book I recommend on the power of beliefs:

Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You and Your World


  1. Hi Grant,

    Just a small comment about this blog. This concept is true and can be found in everyday a make or model of car for example. People may have had a bad experience with a make/model of car but not all of those make/models of car are like that. Keep up the great work....


  2. Hi Al, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the blog.

    Yes, great example. And yes, every day our world is shaped by the effect of the RAS and our beliefs, stereotypes and prejudices. We see things only when and as we believe them.

    I have a funny story that one of the participants of my workshops shared with me many years ago, about the effect of the RAS in relationship to cars...

    This person told me how his wife had decided one Saturday morning that she wanted to purchase a VW convertible. He had scoffed, saying they were a relatively rare car and there would unlikely be many to choose from.

    That afternoon they went for a drive in the City and lo and behold, VW convertibles were everywhere. He couldn’t believe how in ‘normal’ circumstances he had never seen a VW convertible, yet once his RAS had been alerted to the salience and importance of them, they were now numerous.

    In reality, the number of VW convertibles hadn’t changed; previously they were unimportant to him so his RAS blocked them out. But once his RAS was attuned to them, they jumped out at him and seemed more plentiful.

    all the best,

  3. This is incredible. it is so informative to be true, but it is.


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