“Manifesting” and brain fog
Dear Dr Ash,
I’m intrigued about whether there’s any neurological validity to “manifesting” – the idea that believing in an outcome makes it more likely to happen. Someone in my yoga group is convinced she manifested her boyfriend by praying to the universe for someone kind and caring. I’ve read that other people manifest a windfall of money, or their dream job, simply by meditating on it every day, imagining what the dream would feel like in reality. I’m doubtful, but also intrigued. If everyone did this together, would it make the world a happier place? (Or is that just the beginning of another organised religion?) Does it only work for one person manifesting themselves a new car for Christmas, or could we collectively magic, sorry, manifest, a brilliant new prime minister, or a solution to climate change?
As I read your letter this morning I am sitting at my desk near a big window, looking out at what appears to be unending grey skies and interminable rain. The English fall can be a beautiful time of colour and slanting sunlit afternoons, but on days like today I find that I can only imagine more grey and more cold and I start to have a sense of panic that maybe I’ve missed the best of the season. Today I thought I’d give your suggestion a try and I tried to commit, really commit, to the belief in a sunny day. I looked at the sky for longer. I despaired. But eventually, after some time and agony, I think that I did see a glimmer of sunlight peeking out under a cloud just near the south-eastern horizon. This improved my mood immeasurably, and I am grateful to you for that.
I think when people talk about “manifesting” they may mean any number of things ranging from the sort of vague hopefulness that I tried, right through to detailed visualisations and the creation of lists and vision boards. In one sense, the neurological explanation for these effects is simple: the brain relies on expectation to shape perception. Indeed, it is extremely difficult for the brain to perceive a thing at all if it is unexpected, a fact that stage magicians rely on when creating their illusions. Expectations about reality create what neuroscientists call “prior probabilities” that help the brain interpret limited sensory information by statistically biasing the sensory signals, a bit like a static-y radio programme that suddenly sounds clearer when you find out what it’s about. I don’t think that my hopeful glances out the window this morning changed the weather, but they certainly changed my experience of it.
A more powerful aspect of manifesting, though, comes when the change in perception causes a change in behaviour. This morning, I might have done more than wish for sunshine. I might have committed to the idea enough that I thought I’d do some work in the garden, or go for a long walk. Then, at the moment that the sun did make a brief appearance, I would already have been outside to enjoy it. In this sense manifesting can’t help but succeed, because it means you are taking the actions needed to make your intentions come to pass, and will continue taking action until they do.
All this sets up a wonderfully positive cycle. You set your intentions on a certain outcome and “invite” that outcome into your life actively, with behaviour changes. If the outcome happens, you feel immense joy. If it doesn’t happen, you simply wait and continue to manifest and hope it will happen. Either way, you are spending most of your time looking for positive changes in the world, rather than obstacles, and this will usually lead to success.
The only downside I see to all this is what in 1975 Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer called the “illusion of control” – the tendency of people to think that their deliberate actions caused effects that were otherwise known to be due to random fluctuation. For example, thinking that crossing your fingers might make a coin more likely to land on heads. Langer pointed out that the illusion of control was particularly strong in gamblers and bankers, who tend to overestimate how much their own skills affect their financial outcomes. My hunch is that, had our recently ex-prime minister been familiar with Langer’s work, we wouldn’t have needed to manifest a new one quite so urgently.