Magical Thinking


Do You Believe in Magic?

The New York Times
January 23, 2007

A graduate school application can go sour in as many ways as a blind date. The personal essay might seem too eager, the references too casual. The admissions officer on duty might be nursing a grudge. Or a hangover.

Rachel Riskind of Austin, Tex., nonetheless has a good feeling about her chances for admittance to the University of Michigan’s exclusive graduate program in psychology, and it’s not just a matter of her qualifications.

On a recent afternoon, as she was working on the admissions application, she went out for lunch with co-workers. Walking from the car to the restaurant in a misting rain, she saw a woman stroll by with a Michigan umbrella.

“I felt it was a sign; you almost never see Michigan stuff here,” said Ms. Riskind, 22. “And I guess I think that has given me a kind of confidence. Even if it’s a false confidence, I know that that in itself can help people do well.”

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 appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Psychology, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Kopavi and the Pacemaker

Today was a difficult day, but I’m not entirely sure why. My car was repaired in record time, and cost half as much as the original estimate, so that was good. A computer repairman came to pick up my laptop, which died inexplicably over the holidays; he’s not hopeful, which is depressing, but hardly crushing. I’ve had salt and sugar cravings for several days, and I’ve allowed them to overrule my good sense when making food choices, so not so good. But I got some work done today that I’ve been putting off, which is a step forward.

Part of it is that I’m just very tired. I’d like a break, a vacation, a good long rest, but there’s no time or money for that right now. I feel a bit better, than I find my energy draining again.

Started reading a new book by José Stevens. Its dreadfully over-the-top title is Praying with Power: How to Use Ancient Shamanic Techniques to Gain Maximum Spiritual Benefit and Extraordinary Results through Prayer. Oy. But I’ve made it through a couple of chapters, and the substance of what he’s saying has some real resonance.

One intriguing discussion, though I have no idea if it has any real validity, concerns an anatomical “port” for the transmission of spiritual essence, which he identifies as a place on the heart called the sinoatrial node, just behind and to the left of the sternum, in the top right side of the heart, which the medical world calls the heart’s natural pacemaker. Stevens writes:

According to shamanic tradition, the life force . . . first enters [the body at] the medulla oblongata in the brain stem. From there it is distributed both upwards and downwards through the central nervous system to two specific ports, [downward into the sinoatrial node] in the heart, and . . . upwards into the pineal gland in the central top part of the head. The [Hopis] call that port in the top of the head “Kopavi,” meaning “the open door.”

He goes on to say that our everyday thinking, feeling, and acting drains and disperses this energy, and that to “complete the circuit” again and give our prayers (which he sees essentially as affirmative creative decrees) the dynamic power they need to become manifest, one needs only to direct attention to that sinoatrial port, and chant “I AM” to engage that energy. Once you feel “the buzz of life” there, he says, you’re ready to pray.

Now, as I write this, it seems even hokier and stranger than it seemed when I first read it. I certainly have no idea if there is any such “shamanic tradition,” nor which tradition, specifically, it might stem from. But Mom said something odd to me after I did energywork on her last night: that whenever I lay my hand on her chest—and my hand is always precisely over the sinoatrial node—she feels a flame of energy (her words, not mine, and she’s about as un-woo-woo a person as you’d ever hope to find) shooting up into her head, giving her a momentary sharp headache that quickly fades. She drew a line on her forehead to indicate where the pain shoots up, but she said it was deeper within. Exactly where the pineal gland is located.

So I’ll let you know how my prayers turn out.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain, Shamanism | 1 Comment

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