Despite the fact that we have all experienced this serendipitous phenomenon to some degree — you think about a big group holiday and a friend books a large house in France and emails to invite you, or you become interested in something related to your work tangentially and then a major project in that exact area lands in your lap — it seems incredible to believe that “merely” directing our energy towards our deepest desires and focusing our attention on this can help us “manifest” our ideal life. These examples are rare occurrences and I certainly don’t advocate making a passive wish and expecting the rewards to come flooding in. But a strong intention coupled with sufficient action can make these things happen. You can ask a group of friends to pool together for a holiday, and you can let your network know what kind of work you are looking for. Often these things don’t manifest because we don’t have the confidence to ask.

Look at those around you for examples of when this has happened. Don’t just focus on the obvious success stories of friends or family who have created successful businesses or climbed mountains, but also look at those who perhaps have made major health changes to their lives or who found the perfect house for their needs through talking to someone they met randomly. There are some interesting high-profile examples of this working too: from the actor Jim Carrey writing himself a fake check for $10 million, dated 1994, to go on to land Dumb and Dumber that year with a fee of exactly that amount, to Oprah Winfrey’s life-changing vision boards.

To commit to actively trying to “manifest” our dream life may seem crazy. We fear it won’t work and the effort will have been in vain, or that we will feel humiliated if we share our big ideas with someone and don’t get a positive response. So we just sit back, do nothing and wait to see if it might happen without believing it could. 

Too often, our deepest desires and the intentions we choose are at odds with each other. Consider the examples of this that apply to you. Perhaps you focused on aiming for a promotion and a pay rise to achieve stability when your real dream was to retrain; or you returned to a relationship you had been miserable in because you felt you ought to be able to make it work. Think about your life and the last time that you truly “worked towards” something that was your heart’s desire. What happened? 

If our desires and intention are truly aligned, we can begin to “manifest” the life we want by engaging all our senses in the imagining and visualization of it — saying it; hearing it; visualizing what it looks, feels, smells and tastes like. In this way, our dreams begin to feel tangible to our brain. 

In finding this focus and fully identifying it in our mind, there are two physiological processes going on in the brain simultaneously that explain this powerful cocktail and why manifestation has real effects. 

Selective attention

We are bombarded with millions of bits of information every second — mostly through our eyes and ears, but also through smell, taste and touch. Our brain must discard or fade some things into the background to enable us to focus on what is necessary to us at that time. Information is registered and stored as memories, ready to direct and influence subsequent actions and responses. Selective attention is the cognitive process in which the brain attends to a small number of sensory inputs while filtering out what it deems unnecessary distractions.

It is the part of the limbic system called the thalamus which manages the brain’s selective filtering. During a conversation with a friend, for example, it will take in data from your visual observations (the image of the person in front of you and your observations of their movements and body language), plus the sound of their voice with its inflections and emphasis, along with any further sensory information you receive and the emotions you have in your body as you stand talking to them. Acting as a hub for our senses, the thalamus gathers all this sensory information and then, like a road traffic officer, it directs it to the appropriate part of the brain. The thalamus interacts with these other areas of the brain to stay informed about what is deemed a priority and what can be faded out. And the level of selection happening is rather astonishing.

Have you seen the video of the famous 1998 “door” experiment by the psychologists Daniel Levin and Daniel Simons?[i] In the experiment, a researcher approached a pedestrian to ask for directions holding a map. As the pedestrian takes the map and is showing the researcher where to go, two workmen carrying a door pass between the researcher and the pedestrian, and a second researcher is substituted for the first. The pedestrian is left talking to another person entirely. Remarkably, 50 percent of pedestrians in this experiment didn’t notice that the person they were talking to had changed once the door had passed. They were focusing on the map and directions and their brains failed to register that the asker looked and sounded completely different. Their thalamus had decided the appearance of the researcher was insignificant, fading out all sensory information that related to this. Levin and Simons have done a series of other, similar experiments (you may have seen the one with a person in a gorilla suit in the basketball game). 

This selective attention is happening every second. In fact, we choose to utilize it ourselves sometimes when we close our eyes to try to remember something specific, or put our hands over our ears if we’re trying to concentrate hard. Understanding and accepting that we are all blocking huge amounts of information — and of course very much choosing to focus on other information — is crucial to the power of manifestation. It is a powerful reason to take charge of what you pay attention to and what you don’t — you can’t manifest what you don’t consciously notice. 

The brain’s capacity to focus is not to be underestimated. Once we appreciate that our brains are selecting information to influence our actions (and “deselecting” others) then we start to appreciate the level of unseen happenings that just might be really important to our intentions, if only our conscious brain was in the know. Are you confident your brain is choosing well when it comes to what you should pay attention to and what you should ignore?

The brain prefers to constantly return to its default, which is simply to keep us safe so that we survive. A great deal of brain energy is focused on working out who is friend or foe as this was critical to our survival when we lived in tribal times. Conversely, in the modern world, we need to actively direct our brain to move away from prioritizing these unconscious biases, and to being more open, flexible and courageous about pushing ourselves towards our goals and choices that feel “new” and “dangerous.” Focusing on what we do want rather than what we need to avoid in order to survive will mean we are more likely to manifest it (in the same way that if you’re mountain biking, you should never look at the potholes and boulders you don’t want to ride over, but instead focus on the path through them).

The limbic system also has the job of deciding what we should retain as conscious thoughts and memories, which explains why it is also so important to raise our aspirations and future plans from non-conscious and vaguely defined to fully conscious. For example, imagine that you purposefully create a list of core attributes that you would like in a partner — qualities that resonate with you and come from your own personal experience and desires — and then you take quality time to look at the list regularly and fully explore what these characteristics mean for you. You are priming your brain to be on the lookout for and consciously sound an alarm at anyone related to your stated desires. 

Where previously you may have unconsciously filtered out opportunities to meet for coffee or talk to someone who seemed interesting at the bus stop because you had given up on meeting “Mr. or Ms. Right,” you will be more likely to notice a lingering look, an inviting smile or to actually contact someone that gave you their business card. This is why focusing your attention on your desire is part of manifesting your dreams.

[i] Simons, D.J. and Levin, D.T., 1998. Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), pp.644–9.

Excerpted from THE SOURCE: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain by Dr. Tara Swart, copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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  • DR. TARA SWART is a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and award-winning and bestselling author. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. She is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management where she runs the Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience programs, and is an executive advisor to some of the world’s most respected leaders in media and business. She specializes in sectors that face unusual levels of stress or change.