On a somewhat regular basis, I read or hear someone talking about vibrational frequencies and thoughts vibrating and all that jazz. This is often in relation to the so-called law of attraction. This concept doesn’t stay in the metaphorical realm; instead, it’s not uncommon to see quantum physics being used to justify these kinds of ideas. It annoys me to see science being coopted into pseudoscience, so this is my rant.
Let’s talk physics
You probably learned in high school that everything is made up of atoms, and their basic building blocks are protons, electrons, and neutrons. Quantum physics goes beyond that, doing a deep dive to the elementary particle level, which includes particles like quarks that make up subatomic particles. Quarks have a size of less than 10-19 m. To put that into perspective, 1019 m is the average thickness of the milky way galaxy.
The size ratio between one metre and the thickness of our galaxy is the same as the ratio between one metre and the size of a quark. So that’s the scale we’re talking about when quantum physics says that all particles have wave functions with associated probabilities and uncertainties, along with many other concepts that are pretty obscure for the average non-Stephen Hawking.
In systems with a relatively large number of particles, the things that happen at the quantum level tend to average out, and at that point, quantum physics concepts are no longer applicable to describe the behaviour of a system on a larger scale. An example of this is the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
The thought experiment, i.e one performed in the mind rather than in a lab, involves a cat enclosed in a box with a flask of poison that would shatter if a radiation detector was set off, thus killing the cat. According to quantum physics principles, at a certain point, the cat would be simultaneously dead and alive. Yet when we look at the cat it’s clearly either one or the other, prompting the question, at what scale do quantum principles start to break down.
What exactly is a thought?
The field of neuroscience would tell us that thoughts arise from synaptic connections between nerve cells in the brain. These connections involve neurotransmitters being released from one cell and acting on receptors on the adjacent neuron, causing a flow of substances (including ions) in and out of the nerve cell. This generates an electrical impulse that travels down the cell, creating an action potential (change in electrical potential) that triggers the release of neurotransmitters. This passes the signal on to the next cell.
The best estimate I found was that there are 100 trillion atoms in the average human cell, and their size is measured in micrometres. So we’re not talking quantum scale here, we’re talking a lot closer to Schrödinger’s cat.
Frequency is not based on good or bad
The thought vibration argument is that individual thoughts vibrate at a certain frequency and radiate that frequency out into the world. This is supposed to then attract both thoughts and things that vibrate at the same frequency. Supposedly, positive thoughts vibrate at a high frequency and negative thoughts vibrate at a lower frequency. Apparently, we should all be trying to bring ourselves up to a higher frequency.
The idea that low-frequency vibration is associated with negative thoughts and high frequency is associated with positive thoughts may sound all very logical, but it’s also all very made up. What’s something that’s relatively low-frequency? Harmless AM radio waves. Something high frequency? Harmful X-rays, or gamma rays from radioactive substances.
There isn’t some profound universal rule that higher frequency is inherently a good thing. Not only that, science hasn’t pinned down individual thoughts to conduct measurements on. Science has also not established an arbitrary distinction between what thoughts are “good” and what thoughts are “bad”.
William Walter Atkinson, the author of Thought Vibration: The Law of Attraction in the Thought World, argues: “That we cannot see, hear, weigh or measure these vibrations is no proof that they do not exist.” The notion that “you can’t disprove it, therefore it’s true” is a hallmark of pseudoscience (in this context, I’m not referring to religion or other faith-based traditions). It’s much easier to prove a positive than to prove a negative.
A thought experiment
Let’s consider the existence of a hypothetical purple-people-eater. If you find some objective evidence of a purple people eater’s existence, you can prove that purple people eaters exist. On the other hand, you could scour the earth and find no trace of a purple people eater, but you still wouldn’t have proven that they do not exist. Saying thoughts vibrate, and that must be true because no one can prove otherwise, is like saying there’s a lost colony of purple people eaters out there, and you’re just not enlightened enough to find them.
From the sublime to the ridiculous
Atkinson goes on to say that each person “gets what he calls for over the wireless telegraphy of the Mind” He also says that thought impulses from our ancestors are transmitted to us “by the laws of heredity” (a synonym for “laws of purple people eaters”?).
The One Mind One Energy website says our emotions and feelings must be in harmony with whatever it is we’re wishing for in order to create the proper vibrational state, which will in turn always bring us the result we’re vibing for. Not only that, you must “fall in love” with what you want. Fabulous.
There are a variety of different gaps in all of this. One that jumps to mind relates to the concept that thoughts vibrate and attract physical entities with the same vibrational frequency. Why does this only get applied to thoughts? Wouldn’t feet vibrate in such a way that they would act as a magnet for other feet? Shouldn’t we all be homosexual, as vaginas would attract vaginas, etc.? Then there’s the idea that thoughts vibrating at a frequency would attract certain things.
Is there a specific “toilet” frequency, and somehow my brain inherently knows what it is? If the toilet is made out of slightly different materials, does the frequency change, or is there some greater harmonic essence of toilet? What if I was in the middle of the Australian outback and I was thinking long and hard about getting my toilet vibration on because I really didn’t want to squat and get my butt stung by a scorpion. Is a random toilet going to spontaneously turn up in the middle of nowhere?
Leave physics to the physicists
The most important gap, though, is that the thought vibrating types are applying physics principles that they don’t actually understand and likely wouldn’t be able to understand without many years of study, in a manner that is not in keeping with fundamental scientific principles. Yet they talk about what they’ve cooked up as if it’s actually hard science.
People are totally free to come up with whatever ideas they want, but don’t call it science when it isn’t. If a metaphor is helpful, great, run with it, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a metaphor.
Alright, that’s the end of my rant for now. Time to go back to watching the new flat earth documentary on Netflix. Pseudoscience knows no bounds.
There’s more on pseudoscience and public health on The Science Corner.The Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience