Did you know that your brain runs on just 12 Watts of power. That’s about a third of the amount used by an average refrigerator lightbulb. Such limited resources make us highly susceptible to trickery , because it only allows us to concentrate on one thing at a time. Magicians use this principle to create magic shows when they introduce their assistant, Miss Direction.
However, the brain’s limited capacity also comes into play in the way we think every day.
Positive thinking and the power of the mind
Psychology research shows most people wrongly assume their thoughts can become reality — even people who say they don’t believe in telekinesis or ESP. How many times have you caught yourself thinking about something and then it happens so you feel responsible for the event happening? It’s completely a completely irrational feeling. Why do we feel it?
We are simply making a mistake in understanding causality. Our thinking flows like this: if there are two events, A and B, if A happens before B, if there are no other obvious causes of B, and if A and B are conceptually related, then we assume A caused B.
Consider kicking a soccer ball: if you move your leg just before the ball goes flying, you naturally assume that your leg caused the ball’s motion. We apply the same logical steps even if event A is merely a thought. You might consider your thought of kicking as a possible influence on the event.
Sound incredible? Think about it the next time you hear someone blabbing about the power of “positive thinking.” Faulty logic gets reinforced every time you think a positive thought, such as visualizing a successful basketball free throw, and then the thought boosts your confidence, which affects your behavior, and — voila! — the ball swooshes through the net just by you thinking positively.
We are programmed to believe things happen for a reason.
What do anthropomorphism, mysticism (and religion) and the widespread notion that each of us has a destiny to fulfill have in common? Underlying all these forms of magical thinking is the belief that everything happens for a reason. The basis for such a belief? Call it evolutionary paranoia, which is a safety mechanism.
Evolution has wired our brains to see events as intentional, and to see objects as intentionally designed as a means of self-protection. Our ancestors assumed that if something happened, it was caused by an agent. If they didn’t see any biological agent, like a person or animal, then they assumed that there was some sort of invisible agent: God or the universe in general with a mind of its own. Assuming intentionality was a safe, even if false, bias: it’s safer to spot another agent in your environment than to miss another agent. In the words of the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, “It’s better to mistake a boulder for a bear than a bear for a boulder.
Baseball and voodoo
A voodoo practioner is a believer in what a magician calls sympathy magic. Sympathetic magic was famously defined as “that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.” 3: Sympathetic Magic; Part 1: The Principles of Magic”, The Golden Bough, Bartleby, 1922. Voodoo dolls use a lock of hair on the doll creating a “link” between the doll and the person so whatever happens to the doll will also happen on the person.
Of course no rational person thinks this way, right? As Bill Nye says, consider this. On April 12, 2008, two men pulled a baseball jersey out of a hole in the ground and lifted it before the mass of media who devoured the story. The shirt, the hole, and the baseball jersey were an example of how the public practices sympathetic magic like in voodoo.
The shirt was a baseball jersey with the name and number of David Ortiz, a star player for the Boston Red Sox. It was found in a hole in the concrete of the New York Yankees’ expensive new stadium. In 2007 a mischievous construction worker had buried it there, and word had just got out. The Yankees, and their fans, wanted it gone out of fear. The Ortiz jersey, like a lock of hair on a voodoo doll, could transmit its aura throughout the stadium, perhaps, affect events on the field. The team could not risk being cursed by Ortiz, a player who helped break the Curse of the Bambino. Oh, and by the way, the Yankees won their World Series in 2009. And now you know why according to the voice of magical thinking.
Photographs and memories are what you mean to me
In 2010, four psychologists reported an experiment in the Journal of Cognition and Culture in an article entitled, Implicit Voodoo: Electrodermal Activity Reveals a Susceptibility to Sympathetic Magic. The researchers monitored people’s perspiration levels as they cut up a photograph of a cherished childhood possession. Unsurprisingly, destroying a representation of their childhood made the participants sweat. One possible explanation for the clammy palms is that our brains have difficulty separating appearance with reality. Like the voodoo doll, the picture of the cherished childhood possession conjures in your head the thought of the actual person or object it represents, and so the mere thought of the person or object being harmed makes you feel like he or she, or it, really is being harmed. In the words of the psychologists: “This response is not attributable to anxiety about being observed whilst destroying the picture, nor is it entirely due to simple visual association – the same response occurs when the photograph does not resemble the object. We suggest that this effect may reflect a tacit acceptance of “sympathetic magic”.”
Though it’s important for us to be cognizant of real-world similarities between causes and effects and not fall for the smoke and mirrors of illogical thinking. Otherwise, you may find yourself sticking pins in a doll to influence your world.
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