I’ll be the first to admit that I have a somewhat inconsistent relationship with the intersection of spirituality and wellness. I received my first tarot deck at age nine, know all my friends’ birth charts, and make a yearly pilgrimage to the Tucson’s National Gem and Mineral Show to stock up on crystals. At the same time, however, I’m critical of neo-spirituality’s history of whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and attributing systemic injustice to personal failings or lack of faith. Plus, at the end of the day, I trust science. I aim for a balanced spiritual practice, in which I’m open to the powers of intuition and divine mystery without sacrificing critical thinking. So when I heard about Dr. Tara Swart—neuroscientist, MD, and author of The Source—I was immediately intrigued.
Swart’s work focuses on how the brain processes and prioritizes information, and how we can retrain our brains to attract what we want, from a thoroughly scientific perspective. It's manifestation without snake oil, spiritual bypassing, or culturally appropriative neo-spirituality. Sounds too good to be true, but is it possible? More importantly, maybe, is it possible for a post-pandemic millennial who can barely manifest clean dishes? Swart’s work suggests yes, so obviously, I needed to know more. Read on to find out what manifestation actually is, and how you already have the tools to leverage the law of attraction to your advantage.
The Reframing of "Manifestation"
To me, the term “manifestation” evokes a range of imagery, from incredible riches to pyramid schemes. Unsurprisingly, real manifestation is both simpler and much more profound: “Manifestation is bringing into reality the outcomes you desire,” says Swart. “Manifestation happens when you combine strong intentions (feelings and beliefs) with sufficient action to make a desired outcome real.” Far from magical thinking, Swart argues the law of attraction is scientifically sound and totally accessible: “The law of attraction is strongly connected to us aligning all of our brain power. It describes the way that we can create the relationships, situations and material things that come into our lives as a direct consequence of the way we think and the subconscious beliefs that underlie that. We ‘manifest’ them by focusing on them, visualizing them becoming true, and directing our energy towards them through our actions.” Translation? It’s about clarity of intention, and mindfully working towards your intentions, rather than simply waiting for the universe to perform a random act of kindness.
This reframing of manifestation not only sounds more realistic than the vague spell-casting preconception I had in my head, but also feels more empowering. I tend to take credit for my missteps, while my successes are random flukes; knowing that I can be responsible for “luck” boosts my self worth and gives me a sense of control that now, more than ever, I’ve found lacking in my day-to-day life. Swart adds, “Manifesting is merely another way of saying we ‘make something happen’. It relates to the action rather than to mere intention. Instead of loading this word with wondrous and spontaneous happenings, we should consider it as a directed and purposeful connection between our intention and the actions that we take.”
Finding Clarity in Your Intentions
Easy said, not so easy done. What makes it so hard to bridge the gap between desire and outcome? Swart says that one reason we struggle with intention clarity is information overload. “One of the topics I discuss in my book, The Source, is manifestation and the two physiological processes ‘selective attention’ and ‘value tagging’ that go on in the brain simultaneously. Understanding and accepting that we are all blocking huge amounts of information and choosing to focus on other information"—aka, selective attention—"is crucial to the power of manifestation because you can’t manifest what you don’t consciously notice. Thus we need to actively direct our brain to move away from prioritizing these unconscious biases and be more open, flexible and courageous about pushing ourselves towards our goals and choices.” Swart suggests writing down the qualities that you want in a partner, for example, and revisiting the list frequently. That way, instead of gravitating towards romantic matches who fall into old—and unfulfilling—relationship models, you may be more likely to naturally filter out matches that don’t fit your needs, and make time for those that do.
Value Tagging and Logic
Value tagging, on the other hand, “is the importance your brain assigns to every piece of information and [how your brain orders information] based on importance,” says Swart. “There are logical and emotional elements of tagging.” In short, according to Swart's theory, the choices we make can rely on logic (stocking up on in-season items at the grocery store to save money) or emotion (forgoing my groceries and shouldering a heft delivery fee because I’ve had a crummy day). As such, she suggests true manifestation requires a mix of logic and intuition, and the ability to recognize when our choices are motivated by feelings or beliefs that actually work against our values. Swart notes, “People tend to struggle with emotional tagging because this has to do with our levels of ‘social safety.’"
Swart continues "For example, if someone has just been through a breakup or has been single for a long time and their biological clock has been ticking, then their value tagging system may paradoxically become biased against looking for a companion or having children. They may think they’ve lived alone for too long to share their space with anyone or their career and social life supersedes a relationship and thus won’t be alert to the opportunity of a likely candidate for a relationship. Simply put, when you allow your brain to be conscious of and focus on what you want in life, the raised awareness that results will work in your favor to automatically bring opportunities into your life.”
Mindfulness and Neuroplastic Changes
Retraining your neural pathways may seem daunting in the best of times; spiritual and emotional growth must contend for our time and energy with needs like safety, security, and reconciling collective trauma. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unable to find the time for a dedicated spiritual practice, but I was relieved to hear Swart point out that we don’t need to spend extensive amounts of time—or any money—on neuroplasticity. In fact, the method she recommends is tried and true, and all you need is a few minutes and a brain: As Swart indicates, research has shown, through brain scans, that people who use mindfulness meditation experience significant neuroplastic changes in the brain. Swart adds, “Commit to devoting a few minutes a day to meditate. This can give you a new clarity of perspective on what and who are your real priorities in life, supporting your ‘higher level’ brain regulation and improving your resilience, making you more considered and balanced in your approach.”
Create an Action Board
In addition to mindfulness, Swart recommends a very quarantine friendly craft to call in your best life: "An action board is a great way to start [manifesting]! An action board is a collage that represents everything you aspire to.” Note the emphasis on action—this isn’t your summer camp vision board or Pinterest deep dive. “When you create your action board, you are identifying your innermost dreams and representing them pictorially," says Swart. "More than this, you will also use the board to take action to make the dreams a reality. While it may feel a little strange, compared to a traditional list, creating an action board will have more impact on your brain and your future behavior." Swart's work suggests that because our brains are visual creatures, imagery can help us identify opportunities on a subconscious level, so we’re making decisions that serve our intentions before we realize we’re doing it. Ultimately, strengthening our neural networks to support the kind of life we want to live may not only be realistic—it sounds downright fun.
Lardone A, Liparoti M, Sorrentino P, et al. Mindfulness meditation is related to long-lasting changes in hippocampal functional topology during resting state: a magnetoencephalography study. Neural Plast. 2018;2018:5340717. doi:10.1155/2018/5340717