Neuroplasticity: The Secret of “The Source” … Tara Swart’s new book on how to change your brain to live a better life
March 13, 2019
Self-help books like The Secret promise that we can tap into the “law of attraction” to control our destiny, simply by changing our thoughts. If we strip away the mystique, at the heart of this idea is a fundamental truth that is backed up by the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience: most of the things we want from life – health, happiness, wealth, love – are governed by our ability to think, feel and act. In other words, by our brain.
Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, practising medical doctor, and executive coach, with a background in psychiatry. I first met her on stage in Bratislava, where we both were delivering our “Big Idea” for Europe. She is immediately engaging. Whilst a super-smart neuroscientist she is also bubbly and playful too. On stage she immediately captivates her audience. You can train your brain, shape your brain if you like, to be good at whatever you want. And that you can ensure that your brain is alive and in its prime well into you sixties or seventies, by simple behaviour changes (more water, less screen time, more languages).
Her first book, Neuroscience for Leadership, was more of an academic text. It appealed to business school audiences, and she soon found herself a regular commuter to MIT, Stanford and other temples of thinking.
Her new book is more populist, and more engaging. She is convinced beyond all doubt of our ability to alter how our brains work – and transform our lives. In The Source, she draws on the latest cognitive science and her experience coaching highly successful people to reveal the secret to mastering our minds. Perhaps in tune with this more cosmopolitan approach she has become the Neuroscientist in Residence at London’s hip Corinthia Hotel.
With a four-step plan to awaken the power of your brain, this unique guide to life combines science and spirituality in a way that is open-minded and practical. Discover how to
- Challenge ‘autopilot’ thinking and rewire your brain’s pathways to fulfil your potential
- Manifest the things you want by directing your energy towards your deepest values and ambitions
- Harness the power of visualisation to prime your brain to grab opportunities and take control of your future
- Attack life with confidence, dispel fear and avoid negative thinking
Understanding how our brains work can help us seize life-changing opportunities that might otherwise pass us by, says Swart in an interview with the Evening Standard. ‘The things we want most — health, happiness, wealth, love — are governed by our ability to think, feel and act,’ she writes. ‘In other words, our brain.’
The book, which promises to equip you with the tools to reprogramme your brain and ‘make your own luck’, is a bit like 2006’s runaway self-help success The Secret, but cooler and more sciencey. By unlocking your brain’s full potential, claims Swart, you could get that promotion, double your salary and even put an end to your loveless left-swiping days. ‘The Source is your whole brain working at its best. Your emotions, your creativity, your intuition firing on all cylinders. It’s knowing how to make the most of what you’ve got.’
The Source is packed with surprising tips, from how sleeping on your left side helps the brain to flush out toxins more efficiently, to why downing a spoonful of coconut oil before a big meeting boosts brain power for about 20 minutes.
Underpinning her method is neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change. The latest research has shown we can grow new neurons at any age. Each neuron can transmit up to 1,000 nerve signals a second and make as many as 10,000 connections with other neurons. Our thoughts come from the chemical signals that pass across the synaptic gaps between neurons: the more connections we make, the more we’re able to access The Source. Still with me? Swart breaks it down: ‘Think of the brain as the hardware of a computer. Your mind is the software. You’re the coder who upgrades the software to transform the data (thoughts). You also control the power supply that fuels the computer — the food and drink you consume, when and how to exercise and meditate, who to interact with… You have the power to maintain or destroy your neural connections.
There are plenty of examples of neuroplasticity in the book; something as simple as trying to recall what you had for lunch yesterday strengthens the connections. New experiences such as travel, learning a skill and meeting new people can stimulate the growth of new neurons. And those smug people who claim they only need five hours of sleep are doing their brains no favours, says Swart. Sleeping less than seven to eight hours a night isn’t sustainable for 99 per cent of the population, because that’s how long it takes to clear out toxins.
Equally as important is learning to master our emotions, as this affects ‘our ability to make the best decisions to design our future’. The more we experience something and the greater the intensity of the associated emotion, the more powerful the effect on the brain. Swart uses a bad break-up as an example. ‘This can have negative and long-lasting consequences on mental health because the high levels of emotions related to shame and sadness correlate to the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which locks in the idea that loving and trusting someone can hurt.’ Thankfully, mindful activities such as yoga or meditation reduce levels of cortisol and increase the fold of the outer cortex of the brain, allowing the pre-frontal cortex to better regulate our emotional responses. Swart reckons just 12 minutes a day, most days of the week, will make a noticeable difference.
So how else can we go about living our best lives? This is where Swart’s new book gets like The Secret. She explains that we can shape our material circumstances and relationships simply by directing our thoughts. Through a series of exercises we can merge the limbic brain (which controls our more spiritual thinking) with the cortex (the logical bit). Sound unlikely? Well, something as simple as changing your route to work takes the brain off autopilot, making it more receptive to new ideas like this.
Start by ‘banishing your ghosts’, says Swart. Making a list of your family values growing up, such as attitudes to rules and secrets, can help you shake off unhelpful patterns of thinking. Another tool she uses regularly with clients is vision boards — collages of images that represent everything you want. ‘Vision boards work by priming your brain to grasp opportunities that bring you what you want in life. They’re incredibly powerful, as images track instantly to your brain’s visual centres, bypassing conscious thought, meaning the brain’s filtering system can’t edit them out.’
She suggests placing your board beside your bed, so you can look at it right before you fall asleep. This imprints the images on your subconscious, priming your brain for opportunities to look out for during the day. It worked for Swart, changing her belief she should never get married again after a divorce. Realising she was burying herself in work, she put a picture of an engagement ring on her vision board and, two months later, met her now-husband on a flight.
‘Value tagging’ — placing a new idea at the front of your mind and thinking about it often — allows your subconscious to tag thoughts and opportunities to the idea as you go about your day. So visualising your ideal future can nudge you closer to achieving your goals.
An obligatory self-help practice, gratitude journalling is part of Swart’s method, but with a difference. Instead of focusing on material gains, she advises writing down your qualities, ie ‘I’m creative’ or ‘I make good decisions’. ‘The more you turn it from external things, the more you become somebody who makes their life happen, rather than life happening to you.’
Of course, we can’t help what life throws at us. I ask Swart: what happens if you’re, say, repeatedly ghosted or lose your job? ‘The Source is about building resilience, bouncing back from adversity and managing change better. If you believe you can deal with bad things that happen — because they will happen — then you can deal with that period of change quicker, and come out of it better.’
Just make sure you sleep on your left, keep your vision board in sight and have some coconut oil to hand.