The Manifestation Business Moves Past Positive Thinking and Into Science

According to the founders of the platform To Be Magnetic, successfully manifesting is simply a matter of rewiring your neural pathways. Neuroscientists and psychologists disagree.

Apr 20 2021, 2:30pm

I am 10 years old and practicing for my school talent show in front of my family. I’m wearing a poofy, pink bridesmaid dress that my mom wore in the 80s and singing “Getting to Know You” from The King and I in my best opera voice. I am truly vulnerable and dorky at this moment—until my dad starts heckling me and booing loudly, egging the rest of my family on to do the same. I completely shut down.

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I came out of that memory—or “Deep Imagining”—crying.

I’ve been crying a lot since establishing my manifestation practice, to the extent that my therapist expressed concern. “You don’t want to get stuck in your childhood trauma,” she warned me. “Do these courses show you a way out of the muck, or do they just show you the muck?”

Deep Imaginings™—or “DIs”—are part of an online manifestation school and community platform called To Be Magnetic, which purportedly teaches clients to “unblock their subconscious, limiting beliefs and create new neural pathways to become their most worthy and magnetic selves.”

For the uninitiated, manifestation is understood as a spiritual means of attracting what we want out of life, and has historically been reserved for self-identifying mystics who capitalize the word “universe.” The concept has been around since the advent of the New Thought movement, a religious, metaphysical, “mind-healing” belief system that first started to gain traction in the early 1900s. Now, 120 odd years later, To Be Magnetic is among a host of marketing-savvy online wellness businesses pushing for the practice to be recognized as scientifically-backed.

To Be Magnetic describes itself as “radically different” from the old-school positive-thinking model of manifestation popularized by early aughts self-help writers like Abraham Hicks, Louise Hay, and Rhonda Byrnes, creator of the 2006 law of attraction bible The Secret (and corresponding documentary of the same name). The organization’s brand of inner work centers around unpleasant, sometimes painful memory-jogging (those “DIs”) intended to rewrite “childhood programming”—the beliefs and survival mechanisms we develop as early as infancy that continue to shape our adult lives—by identifying inhibiting thought patterns, destructive habits, and sources of low self-worth, and imagining a more “magnetic” experience. Coupled with active goal-setting in which participants are asked to dump or delegate any pieces of their lives that aren’t “authentic” to them, this work allegedly clears the way for “manifestations”—aka your wildest dreams—to come through.

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The To Be Magnetic method is supposedly grounded in psychology and neuroscience, and in late 2020, TBM went one step further and launched Neural Manifestation™. Outlined as a “process backed by neuroscience, psychology, epigenetics and energetics—with a little spirituality sprinkled on top,” Neural Manifestation™ was created under the guidance of its recently appointed Neuroscience and Psychological Advisor, senior lecturer at MIT, PhD, medical doctor, and best-selling author of The Source, Dr. Tara Swart. 

When I learned Swart had been brought on as a collaborator, I wondered if her scientific credibility could make manifestation more palatable for the masses—or if that “sprinkle” of spirituality would, instead, turn the practice into the latest Goop-y, faux panacea to sully the name of science.

I signed up for To Be Magnetic last year in the early days of quarantine. Burnt out on my recurring relationship struggles, ongoing financial ineptitude, and stymied writing career, I had planned to spend March 2020 on a series of soul-searching vacations. Instead, I wound up confined to my apartment, haggling with FinnAir support staff, and unsuccessfully hiding from my partner in our shared 600-square-foot space. I knew things could be much worse for me, but I still felt simultaneously trapped and lost. So when To Be Magnetic offered a “Free Quarantine Workshop and Perspective on Coronavirus,” along with unlimited access to their online manifestation courses for one dollar, I took the opportunity to excavate the roots of my malaise.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one. To Be Magnetic subscriptions have been in high demand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, according to founder and CEO Lacy Phillips, which makes sense during a time when so many people feel stuck (indoors, in jobs we’re afraid to leave, in relationships with the only people we’re allowed to hug). But Phillips also said she’d seen steady month-to-month growth since launching her manifestation teachings in 2015.

Phillips—formerly a broke actress, waitress, herbalist, holistic chef, and lifestyle blogger (“a rolling stone,” she told me)—now helms a multimillion-dollar manifestation business. When we spoke in November before her annual Black Friday sale, she had roughly 18,000 paying subscribers—or “Pathway members,” she called them. Each forked over $324 annually to access her 18-course bundle and a private community group, where they can crowdsource advice on how to “energetically unblock” to attract what they’re “calling in.”

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Part of the program’s success appears to be how it differs from your mom’s manifestation practice to serve the self-work-oriented Millennial. In contrast, the OG manifestation authority, 2006’s The Secret, reflects some polarizing—verging on pathological—cultural values that have long been criticized. One of The Secret’s main takeaways is that you must feel good all the time, and the Universe polices your thoughts, so never, ever let a bad thought enter your mind because your thoughts create your reality. The book claims that when you think, “I don’t want to spill something on this outfit,” the Universe hears, “I want to spill something on this outfit, and I want to spill more things.”

But negative situations—for starters, a global pandemic—necessitate negative thoughts, and mandating a positive-vibes-only mindset would be both blatantly delusional and very, very unhealthy. Phillips identifies this kind of compulsive positivity as spiritual bypassing, i.e., using spiritual ideas to avoid dealing with emotional and psychological wounds. “You can use positive affirmations until you’re blue in the face,” she says, “but if you are running outdated programming, you won’t create change in your life.”

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TBM’s real divergence from so-called spiritual bypassing is the inclusion of more traditional psychology methods to create a hybrid of spirituality and therapy. “There is so much education about these other forms of manifestation out there, which I’m not trying to knock. I practiced them forever, and they just weren't that effective for me,” Phillips told VICE. “But we really want to set ourselves apart from that: this is psychology, this is neuroscience, and then there’s a little bit of energetics with it.” She went on to claim that she and her team manifested Swart. “We were like, it’s time. We need to bring in somebody to legitimize this process so that it’s not just woo-woo, there’s diversity. There’s somebody with a degree… And she came along and was the perfect fit.”

Swart said one of the reasons she was attracted to working with Phillips “is that she’s not one of these people who pretends she knows everything about neuroscience.” Phillips works primarily in energetics (a new-age philosophy supported by purely anecdotal evidence that she describes as “the energy-based meaning behind certain actions, choices, beliefs, and memories that communicate to the universe your level of subconscious worthiness”). Swart has assumed the role of “a rigorous sort of person” to corroborate and enhance Phillips’ teachings. “You know,” Swart added, TBM is “not making wild claims. They’re not saying things that are unsubstantiated. They’ve got a very rigorous process themselves, but they really hold the science in high esteem.” 

But what exactly about that is science?

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Per To Be Magnetic, it’s the concept that, rather than just sending good vibes into the world, you can feasibly achieve what you want by rewiring your brain through a series of consistent exercises that will make you behave like the kind of confident, self-assured person to whom opportunities are typically afforded—rather than the insecure, self-sabotaging person you are now. In the words of a TBM “How to Reprogram” lesson: “Since we manifest from our subconscious beliefs, neuroplasticity work can be used to reprogram your subconscious mind from low self-worth (blocked) to worthiness (magnetic) by creating new neural pathways.”

Swart’s book, The Source, further explains that the human brain “opts for instant gratification and the path of least resistance whether or not it is in our best interest to do so.” This means well-worn neural pathways developed in childhood and strengthened over time become the brain’s default mode of operation, although their resulting habits and thought patterns may “be steering people down a path not of their choosing, and further from their dreams.” But neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to learn and change—“means we can disrupt and refine these patterns well into adulthood.” 

Neuroplasticity is a relatively new concept that emerged around the time CT scanners were invented, showing doctors and scientists, for the first time, what memories, emotions, and learning look like in terms of brain function. Prior to brain scanners, it was a commonly held belief that humans experienced rapid neural change only until they were about 18 years old, at which point their brains stopped growing. 

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Through the lens of basic psychology, the now disproven notion of being fully cooked at 18 presumed that anyone who endured a crappy childhood had little hope of overcoming their trauma. As Swart and Phillips discuss in this TBM podcast episode, however, scientists now know that humans’ natural neuroplasticity—the brain’s capacity to be molded by our experiences—is highly active until we’re around 25 years old. Then, from age 25 to about 65, natural neuroplasticity starts to take more effort: an audit of our subconscious beliefs; mastery of our less developed brain pathways (pathways noted in The Source include emotion, body awareness or interoception, intuition, motivation, logic, and creativity); selective attention or focusing on what we want and learning to filter out unnecessary distractions; diligence, repetition, and reinforcement; emotional intensity to ensure learnings stick—and proper self-care. 

“Oh my God,” Swart said in regards to my specific health/manifestation concerns, “you have to take magnesium.” And also sleep more... And stay hydrated for optimal brain function.

In other words, changing your brain requires dedicated action, not just intention. It also becomes much harder and more complicated as we age, but remains possible—and supposedly opens up possibilities for manifestation, too.

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“Quite simply, 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,” Swart writes in The Source. “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.”

But not every neuroscience and psychology expert is convinced that delving into your subconscious and adjusting your thoughts and behaviors will “automatically” bring opportunities into your life. 

“My bullshit alarm is sounding,” remarked Dr. Carrie Bearden, Associate Professor In-Residence of Psychology at UCLA, adding that Neural Manifestation™’s “existence makes others skeptical of real, evidence-based science, vaccines being a prime example.” 

“What I can say,” she asserted definitively, “is that manifestation is not supported by science.”

“You can’t violate physics,” echoed Dr. Alison Bernstein, Assistant Professor of Translational Neuroscience at Michigan State University. “You can’t magically make things happen. You can change the way you react to certain situations… which sounds to me like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” she observed (although neuroscience, not CBT, is her area of expertise). 

“We can control our thoughts to some degree and we can learn new habits—I have no issue with that part of it,” Bernstein clarified. “But there are a lot of buzzwords here. I work in neuroepigenetics and neurotoxicology, and we see this a lot with epigenetics.” 

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Epigenetics is the study of how external modifications to DNA (via exposure to trauma, for instance) can turn genes on or off, changing the way cells “read” genes without altering a given DNA sequence. It indicates that we are an expression of the experiences stored in our cells, and not only that—each of us is shaped by our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences, too.

TBM cites this aspect of epigenetics—inherited family trauma—as proof of our collective need to uncover and nurture our “authentic selves”, as well as proof that “reprogramming” could prevent you from projecting your own drama onto your offspring’s DNA.

But that proof, Bernstein suggested, is widely manipulated and hazy at best. Epigenetics is “a fairly new field… and so everyone wants to throw it in as a buzzword, because it makes their thing sound newer and fancier and like we know more about how it works than we do.”

Perhaps generously, Bernstein added, “I bet there are some epigenetic mechanisms that happen in the brain when you do CBT or you do one of these [To Be Magnetic] trainings… And maybe it works, I don’t know! But they’ve wrapped it in a lot of science-y marketing.” 

 “What I can say,” she asserted definitively, “is that manifestation is not supported by science.”

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Despite the new “science-y” marketing, the overall experience of taking a TBM course is still overwhelmingly woo-woo.

Within the To Be Magnetic framework, creating change stems from discerning who you are, or rather, who you were before your family and society told you who to be. So while science is a nice-to-have, the marrow—and the most important element of manifesting—is your ability to embody your “authentic self.”

In a TBM lesson called “Soul” within the ‘Unblocked Inner Child’ workshop, TBM students are guided into a “theta or alpha (hypnotic) state” and asked to picture themselves in their mother’s womb. If that space feels less than welcoming, Phillips encourages students to “reprogram” their utero experience by picturing more nurturing parents—“magnetic parents”—who meet their needs. 

Most “DIs” follow this formula: notice if you’re uncomfortable revisiting a given part of your past, and if so, adapt it. According to a To Be Magnetic “How to Reprogram” lesson, what happens in a Deep Imagining is that “our subconscious mind is more accessible. This is where the old programming and loops live. When our subconscious mind is open, it hardly distinguishes between reality versus not reality and is highly suggestible. Therefore, when we show our subconscious mind a new memory or way of ‘being,’ it believes that to be the truth, which creates new synaptic connections, and over time, new neural pathways to overwrite the old ones.” 

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Swart has gone through the general coursework and made changes to the language to better reflect a scientific background. For instance, that same “Soul” lesson, narrated by Phillips, begins with, “I’m sure many of you share my belief that a baby’s spirit chooses who it wants to come through in order to fulfill the spirit’s purpose in this life, body, and incarnation. I believe this spirit chooses the vessel (parents and caretakers) in which it comes through to best facilitate and complete its path.” That all sounds like more than a “sprinkle” of spirituality, but then the lesson cites epigenetic and neuroscientific research and posits: “We are capable of literally altering our brain and genetic predispositions.” So there’s a little something for everybody.

Simply put, spirituality skeptics are no longer required to completely suspend their disbelief in order to engage with To Be Magnetic material. As Swart told me, “I come from an Indian cultural heritage. I've got a lot of spiritual beliefs, but I need to know how something works as a scientist and that there’s a credible explanation of it working. I can’t just have blind faith.”

During my video chat with Phillips, she phoned in from her Forest Retreat House, and I, from my cluttered bedroom floor. We talked about how the TBM audience has changed since Swart became involved. Since “we’ve diversified and brought Dr. Tara’s perspective on, you know, with the heavy science and the degrees... the reaction, I think, is a lot more elevated than before. It might have just been the spiritual person or the woo-woo person. Now we’re getting the partners and the scientific people who can actually… get down with this. I think that’s been our intention now for about a year.” 

Phillips elaborated: “How do we really, really get this out to the people, serve the people who are very spiritual, but also serve the mainstream as a tool that can really work for them if it’s the right fit?”

As I had rare access to Phillips—she no longer offers one-on-one coaching sessions so this felt like a unique opportunity—I asked for help analyzing some of the “manifestations” I’ve come across in more depth. For context, I gave her the rundown on growing up with a not-so-magnetic dad. I then described a recent instance where I faced mortifying criticism for an unfinished draft of an essay I sent a mentor too soon. I never receive criticism like that, not because I never write shitty pieces, but because I’m scared to share my voice at all. And the exact second that I fired off an email thanking this mentor for her terrible yet valid appraisal, I received a separate email from a magazine editor I had always dreamed of writing for, informing me they wanted to move forward with my pitch. 

“Why you saw that direct connection,” Phillips told me, “is because you channeled something very organic and you just went for it.” She laughed, “Basically, your mentor was your dad responding to you. Of course, there’s more work to do around those triggers. But the universe is telling you: keep following your own style, your voice, your everything. Because that’s where the magic is. The more you do that, the more magnetism you’re going to generate.”

Maybe you’re an unflinching capitalist and you expect manifestation work to garner you millions of dollars and a fleet of yachts. Maybe you require cognitive science to explain the odd synchronicities that occur as you rifle through the dusty stacks of your cerebellum. Maybe you think this is all a stupid waste of time. 

Or maybe you’re like me, and learning to pay attention to the things that feel like magic—whether they are or not—is enough, for now.

Follow Rose Truesdale on Twitter.

Tagged:

The Secret, manifestations, to be magnetic

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