Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Magic and Science, Together Again

Do Do You Believe in Magic?

Great article, brought to you by the Science Times:

...Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge...These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day...

The article goes on to explain how even people who consider themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals. It's pointed out that some researchers feel the brain seems hard wired to produce magical explanations in certain circumstances. This is especially true among children. But if the ability to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition, evolution would have put an end to it long ago. What's most remarkable are the encephalograms of people watching simple magic tricks:

...In an experiment presented last fall at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, Ben Parris of the University of Exeter in England presented magnetic resonance imaging scans taken from the brains of people watching magic tricks...Dr. Parris and his colleagues found spikes of activity in regions of the left hemisphere of the brain that usually become engaged when people form hypotheses in uncertain situations.

That means thinking about magic is not walled off in some compartmentalized safe-house of bad-logic in the brain, as some scientists have suggested.

But what good is magical thinking? The article suggests that it's beneficial to people with low self-esteem, or those who in some way doubt their abilities. Apparently people can find comfort in believing their thoughts influence what's going on around them, especially in stressful situations. Perhaps magical thinking acts to keep our minds stitched together, holding off panic in terrible situations? One researcher concluded:

"...that persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational. Despite this awareness, they are unable to rid themselves of such behavior...”

That puts the nail in the "compartmentalization" notion. Scientists, don't feel bad if you harbor irrational thoughts! It won't make you a bad scientist, just human like everybody else--and it just might give you a survival edge.

The pics are of my friends Keith and Stephanie, of the Bindlestiff Circus. I've never swallowed swords or eaten fire with them, but we've cracked whips together. Their show is on tour right now, so check them out! You'll see magic.

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