Is There Scientific Evidence for the "Law of Attraction"?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

There is an age-old belief among spiritualists that you draw to your life what you put out. Through deep meditation, these ancient seekers discovered how your external circumstances reflected your internal state. More recently, inspiring writers such as Deepak Chopra, Esther and Jerry Hicks and Wayne Dyer have expounded on these ideas by introducing "The Law of Attraction", "Ask and It is Given" and the "Power of Intention." "The Secret" then brought together many thought leaders in this world and spread the experience of different individuals supporting this principle. In "The Secret" we learned that this is based on "scientific principles" alluding to quantum physics supporting this contention: that you will attract to yourself whatever you put out. In this column I will answer the question: is there a basis in the human brain to support this seemingly abstract idea?

Recent brain imaging studies are rapidly showing that the brain does in fact conform in its function to the "Law of Attraction". Perhaps the most convincing evidence to date has been the discovery of "mirror neurons". At first seen in monkeys, scientists eventually found a set of "mirror neurons" in humans that mirror the behavior of someone who is being observed. That is, when we observe someone doing something, the same pattern of brain activation that allows that person to do what they are doing (e.g. lifting up their right hand or smiling) is mirrored in the brain of the observer. It is as if the observer is doing those same things. Activations are seen in the premotor and parietal cortex of the brain: regions that prepare the body for movement and attention. Thus, our brains appear to mirror the actions of another person automatically. Similarly, when we act, the brains of others will fire in a similar way. Our actions cause similar action-representations in the brains of others.

Think for a moment about how great you feel while watching a high-speed car chase or tremendous acrobatics. Your own brain sets up a simulation as though you are actually doing these things. You start to feel as though you are the pole-vaulter or the ice-skater since your brain mirrors the actions of those you are watching.

While this field is still developing, a more established set of findings goes on to further support the "Law of Attraction." Early research using brain imaging has shown that fear activates an almond-shaped collection of nerve cells in the brain called the amygdala. When you show people fearful faces, the amygdala activates as if those people were experiencing fear themselves.

What is perhaps more intriguing, is that there are ways to change the experiment so that people are entirely unaware that they are seeing those fearful faces. However, when you look at their brains during this period when they are unaware of seeing the faces, the amygdala also activates. Even people whose brains have been damaged so that they are "blind" to what they see will have their amygdalae light up when exposed to fearful faces. Thus, fear in others will register in our brains as fear. Another person's lit up amygdala will light up our own. We "attract" the fear to ourselves because we are connected to other people and their brains instantly. That is why anxious people make other people anxious, and fearful people make other people afraid. Similar principles apply to happiness and expected reward, when our brains will light up those centers that correspond with these emotional states in others.

While at first astounding, it starts to seem believable when we think of how often we have a "gut feeling" of fear when someone else is afraid, or a "gut feeling" of well-being when someone's smile is authentic. This "gut feeling" is actually also a "brain feeling" as we set up brain responses in the brains of others with our own emotions. That is, aside from our brains mirroring the actions of others, they can also mirror emotions.

A third line of evidence that supports the "Law of Attraction relates to "Ask and It Is Given" and "The Power of Intention." The brain regions involved in "intention" are very connected to those regions involved in action. As a result, firing up those brain regions involved in intention will start to fire up your action centers. Intention needs to be strong enough for action to occur. Also, when you place your attention on a certain feeling (e.g. pain), it can worsen that feeling. By inference, when we place our attention away from that pain, the pain is decreased. Thus, it is not so much that we are "attracting" what we put out, but that we make it possible to feel and do things when we attend to them or intend to do them.

Thus, "contagious actions", "contagious feelings", "intention-action" connections and "attention-action" connections all support the "law of attraction". Underlying all of these ideas is the notion of connection - we are connected within and without. What we think and feel affects how we will act and how others will act as well. The depth of our feelings and actions is a critical variable in "attracting" what we want to our lives.