Suzana Herculano-Houzel

The secrets of positive thinking

Column_030 The secrets of positive thinking

Visualizing yourself doing well, imagining everything working out, attracting only good things… The wave of positive thinking that has been spreading for some time in self-help literature has recently reached a new peak: the proposal that all you have to do is think about your goal with great conviction and you’ll walk on water, get rich quickly and even make a diamond necklace materialize around your neck. The success of the movie What the Bleep do we Know !?, which argues that the physical reality of the world is created by thought, has opened the doors – and the minds of the public – to writers who make big money teaching how to achieve everything with thought.

Being optimistic and thinking positively about our goals really are highly effective strategies. Optimism, which is the favorable interpretation of life’s outcomes and our expectations, is in fact a great kick-start to well-being. Optimism leads us to the anticipated feeling of success offered by the brain’s reward system when visualizing success, a great motivation to act. That’s why defeatism leads to nothing: what motivation can your brain find to do what it expects to go wrong?

However, no matter how much you imagine a diamond necklace around your neck, it won’t appear there on its own. The brain constructs its representation of the reality of the body and of objects external to it and works with these representations. In this sense, mental reality is indeed created – but in accordance with a physical reality that resists our thoughts. This is why delusions and hallucinations are dangerous: as realities created by the brain without any support in the real world, they lead the brain to act in a maladjusted way, incompatible with the reality of the world and other people.

So, no matter how optimistically you think about winning money or diamond necklaces, they won’t arrive in the mail by the power of your thoughts alone. It’s not enough to think: you have to act on the world and use your brain to change physical reality through your actions.

If the warning about the limits of positive thinking sounds pessimistic, think again. An important discovery of neuroscience is that receiving a prize or money without putting any effort into it may feel good, but it’s nothing compared to the pleasure of earning it through our own sweat. The brain likes to work hard and be rewarded for it. The secret is to do it to earn it.

Originally published in July 2007 in Folha de São Paulo

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