What is the Reticular Formation?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 July 2019
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The reticular formation is a comprehensive network of nerves found in the central area of the brainstem. It's involved in many of the essential functions of the body, such as the ability to obtain recuperative sleep, sexual arousal, and the ability to focus on tasks without being easily distracted. All in all, this network is believed by some researchers to be involved with at least 25 behaviors and functions that are considered essential for human health.

Situated between the top of the brain stem and the bottom area of the mid-brain, the reticular formation is found close to the fourth ventricle and the cerebral aqueduct. One of the more important tasks of the formation is regulating the functions of the autonomic nervous system. This means that it is directly involved with what are commonly referred to as unconscious functions. It helps to automatically regulate the heartbeat, breathing, and the process of digesting food in the gastrointestinal tract. As such, the network is also key to the process of elimination and helps to regulate the processes of urination and defecation.


The development of lesions in the brain stem and the paramedian reticular formation can have a drastic impact on the way the formation regulates various systems throughout the body. Since it is involved in maintaining consciousness, damage to the brain stem and the midbrain are likely to inhibit its ability to control wakefulness as well as sleep patterns. This can lead to situations where the individual loses consciousness altogether, sinking into a comatose state. Lesions may also affect the ability to concentrate, as well as negatively impact sexual arousal, sleep patterns, and cause a constant feeling of fatigue. In the most severe of cases, damage to this area and the brain stem can lead to death.

At present, medical professionals have little ability to effectively repair damage to the reticular formation. While a few surgical procedures exist, there is a high chance for failure and, in some cases, the procedures are not able to accomplish much more than a partial recovery. There are those who claim to have suffered damage to the area and later recovered on their own, but these reports remain anecdotal and are not widely accepted by the medical community.


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Post 9

Merely involuntary bodily processes? Do you means like life and death? I suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in this area. After the three month coma, the fun really began. Mere bodily functions like breathing. Merely yuk yuk.

Post 7

According to one of my old books by Dr.Lendon Smith, pediatrician, the "reticular filtering system" is responsible for filtering out extraneous noises, etc. and other sensory distractions. He has stated that things such as excess sugar intake can adversely affect the ability of the filtering system to work properly, thus "overwhelming" the child with sights/sounds etc.

This filtering system can also alert us to stimuli we wish to see. If one is looking for red cars, for instance, we'll automatically have them brought into focus while the others are hardly registering in our senses. Great knowledge to have.

Post 5

If defecation and urination are unconscious functions of the reticular formation, then a baby is performing an involuntary action when it makes a dirty diaper. It takes practice to suppress these things, practice which (hopefully) comes with age.

Post 4


To a certain extent, the "unconscious" and instinctual functions of the human mind may be connected to involuntary functions. But the psychological/ Jungian "unconscious" is beyond scientific specification. Jung observed trends in human thought which transcend logic and science, or even a brain scan. These trends exist in every part of the brain, and are somewhat beyond conscious specification.

Post 3

This is interesting, that the reticular formation is in charge of "unconscious functions." If this is the case, would that include the psychological unconscious, or merely the involuntary bodily processes?

Post 2

Thanks! This helped so much with my psych project.

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