The Science (And Art) Of Getting What You Want

A neuroscientist explains how the brain can help you ‘make your own luck’

Tara Swart Published Oct 6, 2019 00:00:00 IST
The Science (And Art) Of Getting What You Want Indiapicture

Have you ever had one of those days where everything goes brilliantly: from unexpectedly having time for a leisurely breakfast because you woke up before your alarm feeling really relaxed and awake, to finding a great deal on something you’ve wanted to buy for ages or being offered a brilliant opportunity at work? When this happens, we say: ‘It must be my day’, or decide we’re on a ‘winning streak’. Such opportunities appear to be random and out of our control. Or perhaps you know someone who is always ‘lucky’ … But I’ve come to understand how all of these ‘lucky’ moments are far from purely serendipitous: they are simply the law of attraction in action. Think about particularly ‘lucky’ or good things that have happened to you recently. A work opportunity seems like good fortune but why not consider it a reflection of your successful performance? A chance meeting with a new partner can feel more like a ‘golden ticket’ than the result of the conscious effort you’ve made to be open to meeting people and being in the right place at the right time. Life is not just happening to us; we are creating it with everything that we do. 

Despite the fact that we have all experienced this serendipitous phenomenon to some degree … 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 … Often [they] don’t manifest because we don’t have the confidence to ask.

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 ... Think about your life and the last time that you truly ‘worked towards’ something that was your heart’s desire. What happened?

dr-tara-swart_100419062118.pngDr Tara Swart

The science of manifestation 

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 visualisation of it—saying it; hearing it; visualising 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. These processes are ‘selective attention’ (filtering) and ‘value tagging’. Let’s explore them in more detail. 

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. 

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? 


A great deal of brain energy is focussed 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’. Focussing 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 ... 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 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 Miss Right’, you will be more likely to actually contact someone that gave you their business card. This is why focussing your attention on your desire is part of manifesting your dreams. 

Value tagging 

As part of selective attention, value tagging is the importance your brain assigns to every piece of information it is exposed to—people, places, smells, memories … you name it. It is an unconscious activity that precedes every action in response to a stimulus and therefore directs your ensuing response. 

There are logical and emotional elements to value tagging. The logical element is literally about tagging all the data our brains are bombarded with in order of value to us and our survival. The emotional element has more to do with assigning value to our levels of ‘social safety’, which is our sense of belonging in our community, family, etc., and the meaning and purpose that build up our personal and work identities. 

Because of this process, it’s easy to assign a disproportionate value to things we care about or a negative value (aversion) to things we fear or where we feel uncertain. For example, if someone has been through a painful break-up or simply been single for a long time … then their value-tagging system may, paradoxically, become biased against looking for a companion or having children (aversion). This is where the little voice in the head starts saying they’ve lived alone too long to share their space with anyone or that their career or social life is too important. Henceforth, they won’t be alert to the opportunity of a likely candidate for a relationship, but would be primed to see a promotion possibility in the workplace. Can you see how the brain is steering them down a path not of their choosing, and further from their dreams? 

Self-esteem issues resulting from a childhood where we were criticised at home or school or labelled as a non-achiever may mean we sabotage career opportunities because, at a deep level, we fear that we are not deserving of them. Similarly, if we start a healthy eating plan but believe that we won’t be able to keep it up, we can find ourselves easily giving in to temptation and making bad choices. This is because strongly emotional experiences that have shaped our brain pathways can derail our value-tagging system, skewing it towards what we think keeps us safe even if this is not conducive to thriving in our current life.

Quite simply, when you do allow your brain to be conscious of and focus on what you want in life, the raised awareness that results will work in your favour to automatically bring opportunities into your life. It’s not magic—it’s just that you are able to see the possibilities to move forward with your dreams in a way that your brain was hiding from you previously.


Excerpted with permission from The Source by Dr Tara Swart, published by Penguin Books.

To read an interview with the author, click here.

Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories