why manifestation (maybe) (actually) works

near the lake somewhere in ontario, summer 2020

in my philosophy course we recently covered a concept called “predictive processing”, which is a theory where, instead of your mind being this straightforward learning model that takes in sensory inputs and data from the world and adapts accordingly, our minds are actually always actively predicting what will happen next in the world. our senses merely report back the error function—that is, by how much the predictions were incorrect.

in other words, to perceive is actually to predict.

this might not sound super groundbreaking at first, but in practice, the small differences create big implications. since our senses are merely channels for the error function, the actual contents of how each one of us perceive reality can differ wildly. reporting a delta between prediction and reality is not the same as reporting reality itself. extreme versions of this theory veer into what my professor referred to as empirical idealism; which means that each of us is just having this wildly elaborate dream of reality that’s only occasionally tweaked by external sensory errors. “material things don’t exist; only minds do.”

in a more realistic interpretation of this theory though, most cognitive scientists believe it’s reasonable to trust in our brain’s capability of generating predictive models accurate enough for us to suitably navigate our material environments and carry on our purposes.

some interesting ways this theory can be observed is in war veterans with PTSD; since the error function between a safe post-war world and their prior environment of mortal danger at every corner is too great for the brain to feasibly compute, a lot of PTSD patients react in two ways to minimize error: they either forcibly “adjust” their models to reflect their new reality better (the ideal treatment for PTSD) or they adjust reality to fit their models (i.e. addictively playing war games, only hanging out with former veteran friends, having severe anxiety/panic disorders because their brains believe violence is everywhere).

predictive processing is also the reason why stuff like the blue/black vs white/gold dress debacle can exist (or even yanny vs laurel); if our minds were truly just input-output reliant, then no change in the actual sensory stimulus would mean no change in our mind’s representation of the stimulus. however, some people can actively switch between perceiving one colour and the other despite the image always being the same. this is because our processing models keep receiving super large errors when proposing hypotheses on what it’s seeing, but switching to the next most feasible model still presents large errors. they therefore end up flip flopping between representations.

all this to say, i think as crazy as it sounds, the predictive processing theory actually does seem to make sense to a certain extent. so that lead me to thinking about how i can harness this theory to wrangle my brain into doing the things that are good for me.

the most obvious thing that came up was manifestation. manifestation is a weird concept; it crosses over into crystal and witchcraft girlboss territory; it’s on the maps of people who journal; it’s in yoga/spiritual circles as well. so it has a lot of (in my opinion, unfair) woo-woo associations. i think an accessible way to reframe it would be the active imagination of a future, ideal “you” to be able to better work towards it. you have to actually embody that idealized version of yourself (i.e. instead of saying “i want” you say “i am”). i’ve never thought of manifestation as something that’s unfailing, but i do think people who are proactive enough to manifest things are also proactive enough to work towards those things every day.

a really fascinating side effect of the predictive processing model is that our brains actually really like to “chase after errors” to minimize them, as long as they’re of a reasonable size (this is probably some kind of evolutionary adaptation so we can constantly vie to improve our quality of living). because of this behaviour, changing our internal mindset to manifest a well-developed goal is actually really great fuel to help us chase after the error that our senses bring back to us, and thus act to make the error smaller; this is how someone who manifests a version of themselves who works out 3 times a week might be able to work themselves up to it by minimizing the error: run one day, then two weeks later, go biking; five weeks later you’re hitting the gym on mondays, wednesdays, and fridays for the rest of your life! (fun aside: the closer you get to completely squashing the error, the more your brain is motivated to minimize it. this might be what we call “momentum”! it’s easier to continue a task if we’ve already started working on it.)

in a lot of witchcraft circles, they say that truly and earnestly believing that a spell will work is key to the spell… well, working. if you believe that you’re a confident, attractive person after casting a witchy love spell, you might start being able to speak up more in social settings, be the person to make the first move, be the one to send the risky text. why not, right? you’re hot and your ass is fat, or so says your daily manifestation in this morning’s bullet journal page. and then… somehow, that leads you to an awesome relationship, because you’re putting yourself out there way more than before since you’ve manifesting a confident version of yourself. if you believe that you can write things that people will like, then to minimize the error between you and that loved writer, you might start a substack, make it a regular habit to post frequently, constantly collect ideas to write about throughout the day, read from great authors to learn, and the cycle continues…

i think there’s two fundamental things in action here that make manifestation work. one, our minds are predictive processing models, so predicting that you’re this amazing, idealized version of yourself and getting an error back makes you want to minimize the error by taking action, thus working towards that idealized version of yourself—or what hot girls like to call it, which is “meeting the universe halfway”. two, it actually takes very little to achieve most people’s goals; the missing ingredient is almost always just consistent, everyday action being taken. i truly believe that the primary reason why so many fail to achieve goals is rarely genuine lack of capability, but rather that fear stops them in their tracks. i’m not saying that if you “just do it!!!” and do it well, you’ll be a top one-percent twitch streamer or something, but you might land among the ones that get a handful of regular viewers and be able to make a living off of it within a year or two.

remember, a key point here is that your manifestation shouldn’t be so far off that you yourself can’t even imagine it—it has to be realistic enough that you can fool yourself and successfully “cast the spell”.

my teaching assistant said something really beautiful in one of our tutorials: that action is what happens when the brain decides to change reality instead of its own prediction model. let’s work hard together to act to change our realities!