The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain: A Book Review

Mandi Dunlap

After tackling my first attempt at book review with Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, I was eager to give it another go. Having previously not been intrigued by self-help style books and unable to make it through one before I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to identify with and how quick it was to read. My second attempt led me to the popular book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, by Tara Swart, neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and senior lecturer at MIT. Warning: the experience of these two books could not have been more different.

            Swart’s book is well written and jam packed with information, but it was not a light read. As a registered nurse, I’ve spent a fair share of my time reading textbooks, research articles, and evidence-based studies so personally it was not difficult for me to wade through the lengthy sections where Swart discusses brain shaping, neuroplasticity, neuropathways, myelination, synapses, etc. If I haven’t lost you yet and you’re up for the challenge or naturally intrigued by the human brain then you should give this book a chance or at least read on for the rest of my review.

            So what is The Source you ask? The Source is very simply put the whole brain, both the cortex and the limbic system, working as an integrated powerful team that helps us shape the lives we truly desire. Yes, the idea of manifestation is somewhat New Age, and those thought processes are often dismissed in the circles of those who tend to put the majority of their stock in logical principles and scientific research, but Swart argues that if “New Age” thinking is stripped down to its basics, then some of the concepts are actually fundamentally powerful and can now be proven with science as technology advances with brain scans along with evidence-based psychology.

            With so much to digest throughout this book, the easiest way to break it down is to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the four parts that Swart herself broke the text into. Let’s dive in.

            Part 1, Science and Spirituality, takes a look at the law of attraction and the power of visualization. According to Swart, the law of attraction is the heart of The Source. It is here that Swart discusses heavily the idea of manifestation and that we can create relationships and situations that align with our desires. I really appreciated how much she touched on having an intention point, where the heart and mind meet, in order to work towards a goal together in harmony. Taking away the mystical and magical aspect of manifestation by setting an intention makes it more action based and less a wishful situation. Throughout the book the reader is encouraged to journal along as they read, which I also liked, and here you’re asked to set your own intention.

            A large portion of chapter 1, twenty five pages to be exact, goes over the six principles of the law of attraction. Overall this section is an interesting read and definitely full of information that arguably is useful to everyone. It touches on the importance of positive thinking, choosing to be present and fully engage in life, to be optimistic as we practice patience and mindfulness while carefully selecting a tribe to put around us that supports the best version of ourselves. All good stuff. All a good reminder for each and every one of us.

            The big red-flag weakness for me in part 1 was found in principle 3, magnetic desire. While I agreed with Swart here when she discussed that optimists in life fare better than pessimists and agree that being flexible and open to opportunities, I feel that Swart missed the mark using her own personal life as an example. This was a trending weakness for me in the book actually, Swart using her own personal examples, as most readers probably couldn’t identify with them. Here she talks about starting over, leaving medicine behind and undertaking training as a life coach. She quit her job, moved back in with her parents, then took money from her ex and others to cover her rent as she held onto her “magnetic desire” that work would turn up and she’d be successful in her new career. Great in theory, but missed the mark because a lot of people are probably not fortunate enough with financial or emotional support to do the same. When Swart uses examples throughout the book from the clients she coaches she tends to hit ideas home better for the everyday reader.

            Part 2, The Elastic Brain, is where I personally really struggled with this book. First off, this part includes the heaviest neuroscience talk ranging from embryonic nerve cells in the brain to a lot of talk about the brain of infants and their growth. Interesting topic? Yes. What I was wanting to read about in a self-help book? No. If I’m being honest, my personal notes for this read SNOOZE.

            This was not my only problem in this part. As a nurse, especially in the era of false information and sometimes junk science, I had two specific complaints here. On page 78 Swart writes, “The Source will help us to learn how to think abundantly, smile until we are happy, exercise to improve mood, learn to delay gratification, meditate to allay anxiety, and so on.” HARD STOP. Yes, I think that we have to a degree, the ability to influence our own moods with positive self talk and that we are able to build confidence and be more optimistic. Yes, I believe lifestyle changes such as exercise can improve mood or serve as a stress reliever. Yes, things like meditation and yoga have been shown to help with anxiety. That being said, this sentence, from a psychiatrist, bothered me. Mental health is very real. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating and sometimes no amount of smiling or meditating can cure them. It is okay to seek the help of mental health professionals if you are struggling and need therapy or prescription medications to help you cope. There is no shame in that. Zero. When reading that I knew that needed to be said in my review.

            The second thing in this part that was a weakness to me was again an example Swart used from her own life. Chapter 4 addresses how to rewire your neural pathways. Overall a topic I can get behind. I believe we can form new pathways in our mind when we make lifestyle changes, form new habits, and build confidence by increasing positive self-talk. Swart, however, used an example from her own life that missed the mark in my opinion. She talks about going to the eye doctor and learning that she was going to need to start using reading glasses. She talks about using focused effort and determination to resist the glasses despite her doctor’s warnings and that she was able to improve her eyesight given her understanding of neuroplasticity. She even calls this “mini experiment” proof we can ward off consequences of aging. Is this true? I can’t say with 100% positivity yes or no, but I don’t like that this was deemed an “experiment” of proof when it was solely one person’s experience. This in my opinion was a flawed experiment with a personal bias at Swart’s behalf.

            Don’t I sound like a pessimist here! Part 2 wasn’t a total wash for me. I do think the brain is malleable and I did like Swart’s discussion on the three distinct processes for neuroplasticity. The idea of learning, perfecting, and retraining a lifestyle change, new habit/talent/or hobby, or reversing negative self-talk is something I think everyone could benefit from. I particularly enjoyed the example of Swart’s client, Sophie, found on page 100. This was a very real life example of a person in denial about their physical health who harnessed The Source and through hard work and the retraining process made real life progress in bettering her overall well-being. Through examples like this, Swart really can get the point across. This is where the strength in theories lies.

            Part 3, The Agile Brain, focuses on utilizing the whole-brain approach, which describes six ways of thinking. Swart argues that, “In true brain agility, The Source is optimized to fire on all cylinders. This leads to well-rounded decisions.” Each of the six ways of thinking is given its own chapter to break it down. The six ways include emotional intelligence, physicality and interoception, gut instinct and intuition, motivation, logic, and creativity. There weren’t cut and dry strengths and weaknesses for me in these chapters. Overall I simply enjoyed this part the most because it felt like where the heart of the “self-help” came from. Specifically I enjoyed the section on motivation, particularly when asked to journal a list of de-motivators versus motivators in my current life. This is a simple tool that I can get behind.

            Part 4, Fire Up The Source, is where the previous three parts get put into action. This isn’t a reviewable section in a sense that I read this book over the course of a few days before sitting down to write this and Swart recommends completing the final 4-step plan over the course of four weeks or months. A brief synopsis is that the 4-step plan includes raised awareness, use of an action board, focused attention, and deliberate practice or repetition. The rule is, you have to complete each step in order before moving on to the next. I’ve started working on my raised awareness checklist where I’ve been identifying my past ghosts and self-limits and have journaled three aims for this week. I’m most looking forward to making my first action board. The idea of designing the vision for my future as I further undertake my transition from the hospital setting to being in front of a keyboard as a writer is exciting. Having a visual reminder of what I’m working towards is something I personally believe will help me stick to my list of motivators.

            This journey to unlocking The Source has just begun for me. Overall, I enjoyed Swart’s message, but I think it gets lost in translation from time to time throughout her book. I’m hoping that by stepping back, journaling, and trying to follow the 4-step plan laid out in the final part of the text will be worthwhile for me on my personal growth journey. I’d say I’m sold on the message, but not sold on Swart’s science or that the science she referenced is proof to support her theories.

April 12, 2022

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