The Scientific Reason Affirmations Work
Anyone who’s read even a little self-help has come across New Age-y talk of vibrations. The theory goes like this: Everything in the world has a ‘vibration.’ Good things, like wealth and love and fabulous skin, have a ‘high vibration.’ Bad things, like drug addiction and the IRS auditing you, have a ‘low vibration.’
Things are attracted to each other in this world, and like attracts like. So, the trick of being successful in life is learning how to raise your vibration to a high energy level so you might attract other high energy things and people into your life. Books touting this view of things often have aphorisms like the following:
According to this theory, the best thing you can do for your success is Affirmations. To do an Affirmation, stand in front of a mirror with your hand on your heart and state that which you want to be true as if it is already true. The key to a good Affirmation is specificity. Here are some example affirmations:
According to the theory, by doing Affirmations, you are raising your vibrational level and attracting what you Affirm to you.
Affirmations sound like, and are, utter bullshit.
Here’s the problem: they work.
Put aside your analytic, scientific mind, and actually commit to the process of Affirmations for a month, and the damn things work like a charm. I know because I tried it. When you start doing Affirmations, your life does get better.
In the West, we have a romantic notion of the brain being the seat of rationality, but this is sadly not the case. The brain, like the rest of your organs, has a function that evolved for the purposes of keeping you alive in the wild. The brain evolved to help Homo Sapiens make good decisions about things like food availability, security, and mating, not to perform rigorous analytical assessments on things. These evolutions led to a lot of cognitive biases, which are beliefs that we all have without justification. Some of them are quite common:
The common theme with all of these biases is that they are not rational. In actuality, they are little shortcuts the brain takes to avoid thinking. Thinking is a cognitively costly activity. In order to effectively think, a Homo Sapien must ignore all stimulus around them. In the wild, this leaves Homo sapiens vulnerable to things like bear attacks, which makes thinking quite dangerous.
To avoid all this costly thinking, the brain collects all the sensory information about the world, but only allows a small portion of it in for the activity thinking. The brain also evolved criteria for deciding what gets processed for thinking and what doesn’t. The criteria is this: Given what I already know, what makes the most sense? I’ll process that.If a Homo Sapien looks at a forest and sees a bush full of berries, she’s more likely to process that bush full of berries if she’s eaten the berries before and knows they’re edible. If a Homo Sapien looks at a forest and sees a bear, he’s more likely to process the bear because he already knows bear means death. It’s only in the absence of things like berries and bears that the Homo Sapien has time to learn about that which she does not know.
Unfortunately, we are not in the wild anymore, so this process backfires — badly. One poignant example is any kind of prejudice: if one is already convinced a minority population is lazy (say, because they were taught that as a child), their adult brain will only process times when people of that minority are lazy and explain all the examples of enterprising minorities away. A more down-to-earth example is attitudes about money: If you believe that rich people are all greedy, then your brain will alert you when rich people are greedy and explain it away when rich people are nice. If you believe this, it’s possible your brain may sabotage your own efforts to get rich in an effort to avoid being greedy.
So, for utterly mundane and scientific reasons, your world is indeed created by your thoughts.
This makes thoughts extremely important. If each thought we have contributes to the world we live in, we have to be very careful about our thoughts. Thoughts are not fleeting ephemera of life, here one moment and gone the next; like the sculptor with his blade, each thought you have is another change you make to yourself. And like the sculptor’s changes, your thoughts can’t be taken back. Or, if it is more natural for you to think in terms of money:
This is the magic of Affirmations: affirmations engage this cognitive bias in your favor. When you do affirmations, you are teaching your brain a new way to think about the world. This changes what your brain processes on your behalf, leading you to see different things and have different thoughts, until the landscape changes so much that you get what it is you affirmed. The best affirmations are specific because it gives your brain a very clear set of guidelines on what to process for you.
Now that we know the biological process by which affirmations become reality, we can use that process to our advantage.
Affirmations promoted by New Age people tend to be of the more specific worldly variety (“I work in a job I love with people I love”) but since we know that the true magic of affirmations is in rewiring the brain’s view of the world, I use affirmations that are focused on changing my mindset. Here are some affirmations that have worked for me:
For as long as I can remember, I hated myself. Until I picked up this affirmation six months ago. At first, saying it to myself before bed felt completely ridiculous, and I blushed from embarrassment even though I was alone. As I got used to it, I noticed that for the first time in my living memory, I began to hate myself less.
A lot of times, when people say “it will be all right” about their own problems, they don’t believe it. They’re using it as an informal affirmation. If they are convinced it will be all right, their brain is subconsciously searching for how it will be all right. When it finds a solution, the brain presents the solution to the conscious mind. It may seem as if the solution appeared out of thin air, but the affirmation is what made it possible.
Before I used this affirmation, I always felt like my life was lacking. I didn’t have quite enough money, quite enough clothes, quite a good enough car. As soon as I started using this affirmation, my brain revealed to me that it is true: I am always fed, clothed, sleeping in a well heated/cooled location, and always have enough money (and loved ones) to ensure that won’t change. All expressions of gratitude begin as affirmations.
The commonality between these affirmations is that they are about mindset. They are not about external physical conditions, as some New Age authors recommend they should. No matter how good your affirmations are, sometimes the exact circumstances you try to affirm won’t come about. Unlike external circumstances, your mind is totally under your control.
Your mind is, indeed, the only thing totally under your control. When you can use affirmations to change your mindset, using them to control a world in flux is a waste of time. To change your life, change your mindset.
If you want to read more thought-provoking and eye-opening articles like this one, my weekly roundup list is just the thing for you.
1: The most convincing one I’ve read used String Theory. If each subatomic particle is a string of energy and all matter is composed of subatomic particles, everything is made out of vibrating energy! What a perfect theory, right? Except that it’s complete crap. Vibrational energy in String Theory varies according to physical properties of the given subatomic particles, not the desirability of the object those subatomic particles compose.
The Scientific Reason Affirmations Work
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