A Scientific Basis for New Age Bullshit

If you’ve spent any time around New Agers, you’ve probably heard something like:

“You get more of whatever you think about.” — we play more of a role than we think in every success and failure in our life.

Bullshit, right?

We have no problem taking credit for all the good in our lives (my job, my house… my hard work!); we are less inclined to consider any causal relationship between our thoughts and our problems. Is it fair for us to take all the credit for all our successes and no credit for any of our failures? Or at least most of them? While some of the more woo aspects of New Age (e.g. manifesting) have no explanatory model based in science, basic brain functioning lends a degree of credence to the notion that our thoughts increase what shows up in our lives.

The reticular activating system (RAS): it’s the part of the brain that is responsible for parsing the fire hose of sensory data coming at us, filtering out what is relevant, bringing it to our attention, and disregarding the rest. From John Assaraf & Murray Smith’s The Answer (pg. 59):

 The RAS is the scientific term for a network of nerve pathways at the base of your brain that connects the spinal cord, cerebellum, and cerebrum and acts as a filter for all the sensory input your brain draws from your external world. (Reticulum, from the Latin for “little net,” simply means a netlike structure.) Anything that you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell passes through the spy network, which then relays the signal or message on to the appropriate part of your brain for processing.

Your reticular formation stands guard at the doorway of your mind, sorting through the torrent of incoming information and searching for those specific bits that best match those information patterns already established in your brain. Your reticular formation picks up all the sensory input from your environment and, if it’s important to you, sends a signal to your conscious brain to alert you that something important is going on. And it does this at a speed eight hundred times faster than your conscious brain cells operate.

It is the RAS that enables us to hear our name called from across the room in a bustling party. It enables a mom to wake at the slightest whimper of her baby from two rooms over yet sleep through storms and traffic noises. It is why once we buy a new car we start seeing that car everywhere. Those cars were always there, but now they are relevant, and so we notice them.

We task the RAS— instructing it on what to bring to our attention—  through our beliefs, goals, biases, expectations, hopes, fears, suspicions, annoyances, concerns. Our outlook instructs it to have us notice anything that confirms that outlook. Our beliefs instruct our RAS to bring those relevant items to our attention. This fact can lead to some seemingly spooky experiences; it reverses the old aphorism to, “I’ll see it when I believe it”. And it is supported by research from Harvard Medical School attention researchers Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, who found that 83% of participating radiologists failed to notice a postage size image of a man in a gorilla suit superimposed on a lung scan, because it did not match what they expected to find.

As I said in a previous post, fixating on a problem leaves no mental cycles left for the solution. Instructing the RAS that X is relevant has the RAS fixate on it. We need to belay that order.

So how do I stop telling my RAS that X is relevant? By changing my habitual thoughts. For instance, if I habitually think, “nobody ever helps me”, I will notice all the times nobody ever helps me, thereby reflecting and reinforcing that belief. Granted, that thought comes tacked on to an emotion— sadness, anger— and the emotion needs to get resolved. Until it is resolved, I’ll have a hard time changing the mental habit.

Affirmations and their relationship to existing negative thougths is an area in which New Agers need to tread carefully— using methods like affirmations to change thought patterns might subtlely shame people for having a negative feeling that must be explored (sometimes with therapy) before it can truly be changed. Negative feelings aren’t bad, they are letting you know something is wrong and needs to change. If you are trying out affirmations, and they make you feel worse, consider seeking therapy to more closely examine those stuck feelings. If you feel shamed for being stuck on negative thoughts, advocate for yourself. This may involve communicating that you aren’t for having negative thoughts and it is important for you to get to the bottom of them. It may also involve walking away from well-meaning people who aren’t trained in handling deep-seated emotions.

If I replace a habitual, debilitative thought with a more facilitative one, like, “people are glad to help me”, this will shift the focus of the RAS, producing seemingly spooky outcomes. I will start noticing those times that people actually help me that I may not have noticed before. I may discover that I’ve been turning down offers for help without realizing it, or I’ve been posturing myself in a way that has people less inclined to offer to help. I’ll find ways to get the help I want, like just asking for help.

It’s common to believe that we only have certain thoughts because they are true; the reverse notion is socially misunderstood, even ridiculed. The habitual recitation of thoughts inclines us to notice them more, as well as posturing us in a way that favors more of that same outcome, thereby making any fleeting truth persist. You get more of what you think about, and it is directly related to the act of thinking about it.

 You will look for —and find— confirmation of whatever you choose to think so choose useful thoughts! 

 

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