Almost three years ago, after seeing The Secret, my friend announced that she was going to meet a man and then marry him within the month. She believed this with every fiber of her being because, after all, she had asked. “Ask, believe, receive — it’s the Law!” she told me, beaming with certainty.
And not just any law, according to the movie’s website, but “the most powerful law in the universe”: the Law of Attraction. No wonder she was so confident. A universal law is a statement of fact that a particular phenomenon always occurs when specified conditions are met. With asking and believing out of the way, my friend was fully prepared to receive. And yet, sadly, her man has yet to manifest. Her question was why?
Of course, many people have achieved remarkable success by thinking positively, crafting “vision boards,” holding a good feeling, and practicing various other techniques promoted by proponents of The Secret. So, perhaps the critical question is how do these practices work, when in fact they do? Do we need an agent acting on our behalf in the universe, if only intermittently?
Starting with the premise of the film — that everything is energy — consider that our mind (more to the point, the neural behavioral intelligence system that gives rise to it) is our energetic connection to the rest of the universe. It was crafted by universal laws — the laws of energy and evolution — and helped our ancestors generate sound behavioral decisions based on the energetic reality of human existence. These decisions enabled our predecessors to get the “energetic goods” they desired — resources such as food and shelter, mates, and friends (all of the kinds of things you might put on your vision board). With every experience, a neural network is created or modified in the brain that represents it. All of the disparate bits of information about the particular moment get yoked together: 1) internal information about how we felt, 2) sensory information about where we were and who was there, 3) cognitive and behavioral information about what we and others did, and 4) internal feeling-state information about the consequences of these events. If we get a positive result, the network becomes easier to activate, and if we don’t, it becomes harder to activate. In this way, we hone in on optimal strategies for success.
So what happens when we want something? Let’s start with a simple goal, such as finding a good meal in a new city. Our goal is established by No. 1: how we feel (hungry). The psychological state of hunger is preceded by a neural signal that activates networks with similar “hunger components.” Sensory information about where we’re currently located (No. 2) narrows the neural search to those networks that have similar sensory components (there’s no point in searching for a Whole Foods, for example, if we’re out in a forest). Let’s say that we’re actually in a nice hotel. Memory networks with stored information about previous stays in nice hotels light up, and with that, so do (No. 3) thoughts about room service, as well as behavioral output programs that enable us to find the menu and make the appropriate phone call. The next thing we know, a delicious meal appears at our door. If we were hoping for a cosmic bellhop, we’d be hard pressed to find a more competent one.
Telling others about our desires can be enormously helpful in some instances. A case in point is the little boy in The Secret, who asked the universe for a bicycle and received one from his grandfather. But if we’re looking to meet someone and marry him or her within a month, we might want to exercise some discretion in whom we tell (our best friend? Maybe. The potential Mr. or Ms. Right we just met? Probably not).
So what happens when we think positively, craft a “vision board,” hold a good feeling, and put into practice various other techniques promoted by proponents of The Secret? We’re focusing our behavioral intelligence system on the goal and keeping its problem-solving capacity on task, rather than allowing negative or extraneous information to divert our aim. We’re lighting up all of the relevant information we have stored in our brain and mind, readying it for use in our search. We’re focusing our senses on potentially relevant information in the world. In effect, we are making ourselves a “living prayer,” aligning our mind — the universe within — with our desire.
Peggy La Cerra, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience and co-author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness and the New Science of the Self (Crown).