Positive Thinking: Investigation Part 2

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The History and Science Around “The Law of Attraction”

The Law of Attraction, also known as The Secret,  popularized by The Secret movie and book,  is a principle belief that the thoughts you think manifest within physical reality. Those with chronic illness are commonly told to think positively as if a patients negative internal mindset is the cause of their illness. This type of philosophy has skyrocketed since The Secret and continues to spread across a wide range of social circles. This is not how The Law of Attraction is designed to be practiced, but if one does take this most literally, it means that those living with chronic illnesses are primarily responsible for the continuation of their own suffering. While I personally believe this movement has major potential to increase the planets sense of fulfillment and happiness, I also believe there’s a dark side to the muddling of fact and fiction, particularly in the realm of self blame.   

This is a two part article focusing on the facts behind The Law of Attraction and positive thought claims. I dissected through a tangled web of wishful thinking to showcase the evidence based findings. 


Law of Attraction History 

Development Over Time

The Law of Attraction developed over time  from no specific text or ideology. A large influence came from the ancient writing of Hermes Trismegistus whose writing inspired the philosophy of Hermetiscm. Hermetics is an ancient mysticism that was brought into the modern world as its teachings evolved along side the development for the scientific method. Many of the founders of modern science, such as Issac Newton studied the hermetic teachings as a way to study and investigate nature. 

The Transcendentalism movement of the early 1800’s spread ideas about the power of an individual and personal freedom which went on to influence the teachings of  The Law of Attraction. Religious texts from the Bible and Hinduism are also cited in  references to the movement. Over the last several hundred various authors clarified and developed the concept until it was finally consolidated and presented in the terms its stated in today: 

“In the New Thought philosophy, the Law of Attraction is the belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, people can bring positive or negative experiences into their life.[1][2] The belief is based on the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from pure energy, and that through the process of like energy attracting like energy a person can improve their own health, wealth, and personal relationships. The Law of Attraction has no scientific basis ( wiki/Law_of_attraction ) “

Timeline 

1838–1840 Phineas Quimby miraculously recovers from a life threatening illness and begins exploring and writing about the idea that the mind could physically alter the body.

1877  The first use of phrase “The Law of Attraction” is used by the Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky in her book “Isis Unveiled” on esoteric mysteries of ancient theosophy. 

1886-1887  Prentice Mulford is the first to write about The Law of Attraction as its used today, like a life principle, in his essay   “The Law of Success”. 

1937 Napoleon Hill publishes the best selling business and philanthropy self help book, “Think and Grow Rich”. 

1984 Louise Hay publishes the New York times best selling  “You Can Heal Your Life” on the connection between emotional, spiritual, and physical health. 

2006 The Secret film comes out documenting personal experiences of people who practice The Law of Attraction. The movie is such a success that it’s later turned into a book. Both of these continue to spread in modern culture and have gained the attention of anyone in the field of self help and personal development. 


The Science Behind Positive Thinking and The Law of Attraction 

I hope that by sharing my understand of this subject, others may benefit from the useful side of The Law of Attraction and positive thinking, while simultaneously shedding light on its limitations. Here’s what is though to be the logic behind a truth that is not magical by any means.

On Choosing What You Wish For 

One of the most important things I discovered in this research was that in order to gain the benefits of positive thinking, you must be able to separate things that are within versus beyond your control. A study by UCSF’s Dr. Margaret Chesney revealed that it’s best to focus on manifesting change to what is within the realm of control (watch this lecture to learn more Is There Power In Positive Thinking? ) . Attempting to alter the “impossible” was shown not just to be ineffective, but to actually worsen participants symptoms of suffering. I think this study explains a lot about why some people have success with positive thinking and others get irritated. 

Determining What Is Possible 

I’ve personally struggled with distinguishing between the possible and impossible. Especially in terms of a chronic illness, I feel that there’s an ongoing debate between hope and acceptance.  I discovered a way to get around the confusion by the concept of reframing. Reframing is a mental tool used in cognitive science where one alters their  perspective or outlook on a situation. It’s  generally used to bring about a more comfortable state of mind, but it can also be helpful for reframing hope that is possible. For example, instead of thinking about being cured of illness and disability, I could decide to focus on the outcome of what being cured would mean like more productivity, adventures, friends, and creativity. This reframing turns a desire that might be impossible into several desires that are all100% possible. The idea is to get to the essence of a wish and find that there’s always a new way of wanting it within the realm of reality. 

More About Reframing: Generally reframing is discussed in the context of stress management, but it can also be used as tool for rethinking about problems. Dr. Bernard Roth explains in this interview how reframing can be used as tool to make sure your attempting to address the root of the problem. 

How The Law Of Attraction & Positive Thinking Really Work 

The Law of Attraction change people lives, but not for the reasons or in the sense that it originated. Repeatedly thinking in specific ways leads to actual changes in the way the brain functions. Over time, these changes can alter the way you think, perceive, and pay attention to the world around you. Changes in thinking ultimately go on to effect future behavior and response to the environment. These secondary effects can then change the way others perceive and interact with you. The overall changes compound  upon each creating a complex system that feeds into self in either a positive or negative manner.  In summary, these feedback loops move a person either closer or  farther from the life they desire. 

 

 Psychology 

CBT DiagramCognitive Behavior Theory 

These ideas are not anything radical to the modern understanding of the mind. Everything about this premise adds up to compose one the most common practices in psychology today, cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Perceptual Control Theory 

Perceptual Control Theory is a recent and potentially revolutionary theory that states, “an organism controls neither its own behavior, nor external environmental variables, but rather its own perceptions of those variables ( wiki/Perceptual_control_theory).” This principle supports the idea that changing the way you think is a primary way to change your life. The theory is based on a similar system to the feedback loop discussed as cognitive behavior theory, but  emphasizes that change happens within the realm of thought as opposed to behavior. 

Dig in Deep to Perceptual Control Theory:Perceptual Control Revolution, a summary for psychologists

The Confirmation Bias 

The confirmation bias is the human mind’s tendency to  pay more attention to experiences that match preexisting thoughts and beliefs. The Law of Attraction allows people to use this neuro- evolutionary time saver to their own benefit by using positive thoughts and beliefs as anchoring points for a positive future outlook that will be more likely noticed. 

 

Neuroscience  

Attention and Intentions 

The Law of Attraction, inherently forces one to determine their desires and wishes. This in of itself is a valuable  first step for positive change. To get where you want, you do have to know enough about where you’re going to monitor if you are headed in the right direction. 

As discussed with the confirmation bias, setting a focused intention changes what you pay attention to as and increases the likelihood you will demonstrate the behavior and mindset needed to reach the desired outcome. This network of thought is known as the brains reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS regulates and determines what information is brought into conscious awareness. Cognitive practices that alter thought patterns influence the filtering process for the RAS and change the way the brain pays attention to the environment.

Visualization 

Visualizing actions produces the same type of changes in the brain that performing the actual physical action does. One of the clearest examples is published in Pubmed,  “From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind” . This study documents how muscle strength can be increased by thoughts alone. Visualization practices are most researched within the realm of athletes and are commonly used for Olympic training. Of course most people with chronic pain aren’t trying to be athletes, but the same principles could potentially be applied to improving less vigorous activity like simply being more able to do household chores. Since the brain doesn’t understand the difference between imagined and real states of being, there are numerous ways to train the brain with though practices alone. In this way visualization has been clearly proven to influence physical outcomes. The more thoughts of success are envisioned, the more these networks become engrained and accessed when the time comes to act. 

A 3 minute explanation on how visualization activates the brain

 

Practical Tools & Techniques for Positive Thinking: To learn about the simple thought practices, including  affirmations and visualization  that can help you change the way you pay and attention to and perceive the world around visit Positive Thinking: Investigation Part 1.

 

Statistics 

This is the explanation for the hyper- rational folks. If cognitive feedback loops are thought of in terms of a complex systems approach, an initial small change in a thought pattern can have a large effect on  secondary and tertiary thoughts and actions. This is the same principle as the butterfly effect and the work of Edward Lorenz, known for developing weather models. Like the weather, the human mind and resulting behavior are made of numerous interconnected dynamic systems which are vastly interconnected and always changing.  At its root, every choice  one ever makes either causes movement towards or away a desired outcome. In this sense, any tiny incremental influence one has over there own life outcome may go on to later to significantly influence their future. 

 

Action at a Distance, Mysterious Causality & Alternative Explanations 

Like many new age theories, I stumbled into a lot of  claims that the The Law of Attraction works through quantum mechanics. All mysteries in the realm of the quantum are neither provable nor disprovable. I don’t know that there’s anything definitive to say about any of this, but whoever delves deeper into the investigation should  post a comment about what you think the most plausible alternative theory is and why!

The Winning Woo challenge begins now! 

PSA: Watch carefully for money making  scams related to this topic!  The Secret / The Law Of Attraction was recently listed in Scientific American as  “ Worst Abusers of Quantum Mechanics for Fun and Profit (but Mostly Profit).”  


Learn More

Is there Power in Positive Thinking?  From A Healthcare Perspective   

 

“This One Question Will Creation The Change You Need”, Podcast about reframing by Dr. Bernard Roth

“Why Visualization Will Increase Your Chances To Succeed”,  article by entrepreneurs.maqtoob.com

 

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