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The Science of Luck

Optimizing Luck with The Brain in Mind

For most people, the idea of luck is associated with a magical gift, the cause of which is undetermined but most welcome. Whether it is winning the lottery or hearing the clinking coins at a casino, luck never fails to cause immense joy due in part to the surprise of the win. But is luck really so out of reach and independent of the way we program our brains? Here are some factors without which luck would be impossible. Think deeply about them, and you will be well on your way to a lucky day.

(1) Take a chance to have a chance: If you want to win a game in which the odds of winning are very low, you have to participate to win. No amount of thinking alone will help you win the lottery ticket-you have to buy one. When we can afford to take chances, we should. A recent study showed that when outcomes are uncertain, pessimistic people tend to avoid these situations and are averse to them whereas optimistic people do not [1]. Thus, optimism is necessary to take a chance.

(2) Unexpected actions come from the subconscious: To be lucky in life, you sometimes have to come across the right circumstances. But to come across the right circumstances, your brain has to direct you to that place. Oftentimes, perceived "luck" is really the subconscious brain directing a person to the perfect situation where they may have an opportunity. There are times when the conscious brain tries to control where we go, and this is helpful. But in many situations in life, your unconscious brain may actually see what you need to see before your conscious brain knows. This is called pre-emptive perception [2] and is thought to be subserved in part by the parietal lobe of the brain [3]. So when you next "sense" something, take it seriously before your discard it. When you discard your "sixth sense" you may be discarding your luck.

(3) Shine the mirror that holds the clues: When luck involves guessing what someone else is thinking, think again. Your brain can mirror the intentions of other people automatically [4, 5]. People who are more empathic may be better at doing this, and in so doing, may accurately read what another person is going to do [6]. This may come in handy while playing poker. Thus, the more we develop our empathic skills (by trying to figure out how other people feel), the more likely we are to "shine" this mirror neuron system in the brain so that it can reflect the intentions of another person more accurately.

This mirror system also works in other ways. Your own emotions may reflect in the brain of another person. In certain situations, people try to "not get caught." Those who slip by often say: "I was lucky." Oftentimes however, it is not so much that they were lucky, but that they distracted themselves from something enough that they were not nervous and the person who was searching them for what they were hiding did not automatically mirror nervousness. You can therefore affect the way another person is feeling. If you make them feel nervous, they will behave as though searching for a threat. If you make them feel calm, they are more likely to "let you through."

Thus luck starts with calmly taking a chance and paying attention to the automatic "mirrors" and "fortune tellers" with which the brain is endowed. These are not magical illusions but ways that the subconscious operates, especially if you approach your goal with an optimistic attitude.

1. Pulford, B.D., Is luck on my side? Optimism, pessimism, and ambiguity aversion. Q J Exp Psychol (Colchester), 2009. 62(6): p. 1079-87.
2. Bodis-Wollner, I., Pre-emptive perception. Perception, 2008. 37(3): p. 462-78.
3. Gee, A.L., et al., Neural enhancement and pre-emptive perception: the genesis of attention and the attentional maintenance of the cortical salience map. Perception, 2008. 37(3): p. 389-400.
4. Rizzolatti, G. and C. Sinigaglia, Mirror neurons and motor intentionality. Funct Neurol, 2007. 22(4): p. 205-10.
5. Iacoboni, M., et al., Grasping the intentions of others with one's own mirror neuron system. PLoS Biol, 2005. 3(3): p. e79.
6. Gazzola, V., L. Aziz-Zadeh, and C. Keysers, Empathy and the somatotopic auditory mirror system in humans. Curr Biol, 2006. 16(18): p. 1824-9.