Does manifestation work?

In this podcast (episode #591) and blog, I talk to Stanford neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, compassion researcher, inventor, entrepreneur, NY Times bestselling author and philanthropist James R. Doty about how simple acts of kindness can change our lives, how we all can make a difference in the world, the power of compassion, the true power of manifestation, and so much more!

Dr. Doty has been on the faculty of the Stanford University School of Medicine since 1997 in the Neurosurgery Department as a professor and more recently as an adjunct professor. He is also the founder and director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). He was also a pioneer in the development and use of the CyberKnife stereotactic radiosurgery device. Additionally, he is trained as a paediatric neurosurgeon and is an expert in the field of minimally invasive and complex spine surgery. 

For the last several years, Dr. Doty has focused on the study of the neural bases for compassion and the value proposition of being compassionate in regard to mental and physiological health, as well as longevity. His works have been published in a large number of peer-reviewed academic journals. He is also the senior editor of the Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science.

Dr. Doty is also the author of the NY Times bestseller Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. In this book, he talks about his childhood: his father was an alcoholic, and his mother was chronically ill and depressed. At the age of 12, he was filled with a sense of despair and hopelessness, and in order to escape his home life, he would ride around on his bike for hours. On one of these trips, he found himself in a magic shop at a strip mall, where one small act of kindness changed the direction of his life. A woman treated him with compassion and care, creating an environment, if only for a short time, of what Dr. Doty calls “psychological safety”; she didn’t dismiss him, and instead took him under her wing for several weeks. She taught him the power of mindfulness and being present in the moment, helping him manage some of the stress he experienced at home and direct his focus and compassion. This simple act of kindness changed how he saw himself, others and the world around him, and inspired his lifelong journey of better understanding the human brain and mind, and how we all can make a difference in the world through kindness and compassion. When he changed how he looked at the world, and the world changed how it looked at him—he was much more open to others, and carried a lot less anger and hostility. 

A large part of Dr. Doty’s work today is focused on the power of compassion, and how we evolved as a species to care for one another. We, as a species, have a genetic imperative to care; indeed, our offspring would not survive if we didn’t care, and our bodies respond to this, releasing the hormone oxytocin, often called the “love” or “caring” hormone. This motivates us to care by stimulating our reward centers as well as helping our physiology to work optimally, allowing us to be our best selves and increasing our health and longevity. In other words, when we care and are kind to others, it has a profound affect on us, leading to better mental and physical health. On the other hand, when we are in a constant state of threat and stress, the opposite happens: our sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of stimulation that can negatively impact our health and longevity. 

The key is training ourselves to harness the power of our parasympathetic nervous system through being compassionate to ourselves and others. This is not just about focusing on what we need, but also how we can be of service to others and how we can make the lives of others better. As noted by the Dalai Lama, if we want others to be happy, be compassionate, and if you want to be happy, be compassionate. Of course, this is not a solution to all our problems, but if enough people understand the importance of kindness and compassion and are trained how to harness this in their lives and the lives of others, they can change the world for the better. This is why Dr. Doty founded CCARE - to study the neuroscience of compassion and kindness and train others to harness this power in their lives.

In his new book, Mind Magic: The Neuroscience of Manifestation and How It Changes Everything, Dr. Doty talks about another important part of his research: the power of manifestation, or the ability to embed an intention into your subconscious so that your brain network functions in a way to increase the likelihood of this intention coming to pass. As he notes: “For decades, the practice of manifestation has been widely dismissed as self-involved, materialistic pseudoscience. However, authentic manifestation practices introduce us to different possibilities and lay the groundwork for a kinder, better world.” In his book, he talks about several specific practices that can change our brain structures: attention, meditation, visualization, and compassion. This “mind magic” allows us to move through the world in ways that help us see clearly—reclaiming our agency, realizing our dreams, and reaching out to help others along the path.  

For Dr. Doty, manifestation is not a key to get what we want as individuals. Rather, it is a way to harness the power of the mind to change our world for the better. It is not a capitalist tool for individual success and gratification. The narrative of “I want, I deserve, I should have”, which equates happiness with getting more “stuff”, is fundamentally incorrect and a dead end, manipulating the true power of manifestation as a form of love. It is not about using external affirmations as a means to define our success or happiness because we fear we are not good enough or worthy without it, which is a very hedonistic narrative. True manifestation is about looking through the lens of love, care and concern for others and yourself, and creating a narrative of a life of purpose and meaning that does not rely on external things to create a sense of self-worth or meaning.  

This does not mean you have to be anti-materialist or not have “nice” things. Rather, it is about the meaning and value you place on those things: if you lose everything tomorrow, what will your mental state be like? If you didn’t have these things, how would you see yourself and who you are at your core? Do your possessions define who you are? When you live a life of purpose, you can enjoy nice things, but these things do not define who you are or your worth and ability to change the world in a positive and lasting way, which is what Dr. Doty discusses in depth in Magic Mind

To practice manifestation, you need to: 

  1. Understand what you are manifesting and have manifested: what baggage are you carrying that is impacting your choices, actions and relationships? Where have you been? 
  2. Know what you truly want: what does happiness mean to you? Is what you think you want what you really need? Are you looking through the lens of service to others? Understand that what you want will have a far reaching impact on your life. How do you think what you truly want will impact your life? Will it truly make you happier and more fulfilled? Achievement is transitory, whereas true purpose is sustainable. How will you respond to the down times, when you don’t get what you want or are not happy, which are a normal part of life?

It is important to understand that with our minds, we each have the key to open the doors of our self-created prisons. You just have to believe it. This is not to say that you can cure an illness by just believing. But we do know that how you see yourself, and how you see the world, has a profound effect on how your brain and body function, and it is you who controls that. Don’t give away your self-agency! Through mindfulness and mind management, we can realize our full potential by escaping our own self-imposed prison walls. Yes, this takes hard work and practice, but it is so worth living a fulfilling and purposeful life. And, when you change the way you perceive the world, you will change the way the world perceives you! 

For more on compassion, kindness and the power of manifestation, listen to my podcast with James (episode #591) and check out his incredible work. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).   

This podcast is sponsored by: 

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Podcast Highlights

2:28 Dr. Doty’s incredible story  

10:26 The power of kindness & compassion 

20:04 Dr. Doty’s new book Mind Magic & the neuroscience of manifestation 

29:10 How to manifest  

38:25 We are all learning & all make mistakes, but we are worthy of love regardless 

41:32 How to change your life 

48:50 How your state of mind will impact your life 

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact     

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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