I'm not a believer in signs, I told my friends at dinner a week or so ago. "But?" they all laughed, knowing that more was coming.
But if I was, I continued, I would think that I'm seeing signs telling us this trip to Italy is the right thing to do. I was amused more than anything - since we had decided to go to Italy and the Middle East, I had received my Cuisine magazine issue that turned out to be all about Italian food, that I'd seen articles about Puglia (one of our planned destinations), and that I'd seen a number plate that seemed, on first glance, to read "Dead Sea."
"I know, I know!" I said, as we all laughed at this. "It's simply another example of seeing something you're thinking about. You know, just like cancer sufferers suddenly meeting lots of others who have had cancer, or infertile women seeing pregnant bellies and newborn babies everywhere they go ..."
"Or seeing Dead Sea number plates!" they all chimed in.
Turns out there's a name for this phenomenon, which I learned that night. It's called the reticular activation system (RAS), and describes the way we can become acutely attuned to specific topics or ideas. The RAS goes much wider than our often acutely felt sensitivity to pregnant bellies. It explains how our brains sort through what is important (ie hearing our names being called at an airport), and what isn't (all the peripheral chaos around us at an airport). And we can train our minds what to recognise as important. Not in the way a lot of the self-help books suggest we can (eg. the ghastly "think positive and you will get pregnant" suggestions). But perhaps it explains how I managed to reprogramme my brain to stop thinking about babies, stop thinking about pregnancy, and see the positives and benefits of life without children. We've all suffered the effects of our brains' reticular activation systems. But it makes me happy to know that we can also use this to our advantage.