We’re all hard-wired for magic

In the beginning, there was a noise in the bush. Twelve of our ancestors were sitting around a campfire. Six of them thought the noise came from a predator, a huge animal with sharp teeth ready to attack. They leapt up from the fire and ran for their lives.

The other six stuck around to analyze the situation. “Maybe it’s a predator or maybe it’s just the wind in the trees.”

Wind or predator? We don’t know, but we do know that the six people who ran away survived. They lived to reproduce and pass their genes on to their children and their children’s children and so on down to us. Even now, we still get nervous when we hear a noise in the dark.

* * *

Perhaps these “just so” stories should come with a label: “Not for literal consumption. For illustrative purposes only.”

The stories may be shaky, but they illustrate a real problem. Why do some human behaviors and psychological traits persist across time and culture even though they seem harmful or pointless? Why do we humans have compassion, self-sacrifice, infanticide, empathy, and common standards of beauty?

Questions like these led to the science of evolutionary psychology. Proponents claim that puzzling traits like self-sacrifice make sense as evolutionary adaptations—they may not do much for contemporary individuals, but they had survival value for our ancient ancestors. They may have outlived their usefulness, but they’re still there in our DNA and in our minds.

Take the campfire story above. The trait in question is known to psychologists as “agent detection,” the ability of humans to detect other beings with a conscious purpose. Our minds detect agents willy-nilly. We do it when we’re in the presence of other people and we do it with inanimate objects.

I’m not the first person to suggest that agent detection is a basic part of religion and magic. I doubt it’s the whole story, but I think that you could build an evolutionary model of magic from a collection of traits. Perhaps these four:

• Detecting agents where there are none
• Detecting patterns where there are none
• Mistaking correlation for causality
• Valuing stories over evidence

These traits may have outlived their evolutionary purpose, but they’re buried deep within us and they’re not going anywhere. They shape our experience and drive our behavior relentlessly whether we like it or not.

The best we can do, I think, is to understand magic for what it is and find a graceful way to live with it. Ironically, skeptics and believers often fail at this task for similar reasons. They take magic at face value. They witness the evolutionary spectacle of faces in the clouds and voices in the wind. One group snickers in contempt and the other asks the wind for advice.

Personally, I’m a rational materialist. I also read Tarot cards. I don’t believe that Tarot cards reveal the future or give me information that I couldn’t obtain through ordinary channels. I do Tarot because I’m a rationalist, because I need help connecting with the powerful, irrational forces flowing deep inside me.

Everybody’s path is different. At some point, though, I think you have to bite the bullet and go native. We’re all hard-wired for magic.

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“Stop Heisenberg Abuse!”

The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine has an excellent article about the misuse of quantum physics in pop culture. If you’re familiar with New Age media like The Secret or What the BLEEP Do We Know, you’ve seen how quantum theory gets twisted out of context to support everything from ESP to cancer therapy.

Author Dale DeBakcsy confronts the problem head-on by examining some of the most common misconceptions about quantum mechanics. For instance, in the pop culture version of quantum theory, your consciousness determines the state of electrons and other particles to create any reality you desire. According to DeBakcsy, it’s just the opposite. Quantum theory allows random selection from a limited number of very precisely defined states, and only on a very tiny scale.

Unfortunately, most physicists look the other way while pop culture celebrities manhandle their discipline. Only a few, like Dale DeBakcsy, bother to put up a fight. As he puts it, “Electrons have done a lot for us, why not return the favor?”

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Skeptical mysticism: success stories

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. She’s getting a lot of media coverage and very positive reviews. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book yet.)

Wild God is Ehrenreich’s public confession that she’s a mystic, a person who started having powerful visions of heightened reality as a young girl. This revelation wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in a book by Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Browne, but Ehrenreich is an atheist best known for hardheaded books about politics and economics.

What’s more, Wild God doesn’t follow the conventional script of the former skeptic who sees the light. This is not Proof of Heaven. Ehrenreich can’t deny her perception of a living cosmos, but she’s unwilling to interpret it as anything more than personal experience. She’s still an atheist.

So, we know it’s possible to be both a skeptic and a mystic, at least for one person. They say that one person is an outlier and two are a trend. I discovered number two on a recent episode of Oh No Ross and Carrie.

Unlike Barbara Ehrenreich, “Fire Lyte” is a believer—a practicing neo-pagan who worships the ancient gods. He performs rituals and works magic like thousands of contemporary Wiccans and shamans. Unlike most of them, however, he doesn’t feel the need for any supernatural or paranormal beliefs. No psychic powers. No quantum healing. He can fully appreciate his religion within the context of science and rationality.

In their unique ways, Ms. Ehrenreich and Mr. Lyte came to terms with reason and magic. It’s fascinating that they came from opposite directions—one from belief and one from atheism—and wound up in a similar place. They both discovered the common ground that exists between the two poles of human nature, the two powerful forces that get out of whack in so many of us.

They say that two people are a trend and three are a movement. Are you number three?

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“Neurons to Nirvana,” the one-stop doc

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”

– Richard Nixon, 1971

Today, four decades after Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs, 85% of Americans support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 54% support outright legalization. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s hope for a happy ending to a sad story.

The situation with psychedelics isn’t as clear-cut. Although the medical and scientific potential of psychedelic drugs was apparent back in the 1950s, politics won out. The substances were banned, the research halted, and the whole topic buried in a very deep hole.

The story of the psychedelic renaissance is, well, a long, strange, trip. It’s all on display in Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines, a new documentary on the politics, culture, and science of psychedelic drugs.

Directors Oliver Hackenbull and Mikki Willis collected film clips dating back to the days when LSD was a laboratory curiosity. We see footage of the Good Friday Experiment in 1962 when psychologists administered psilocybin to a group of divinity students, establishing the mystical nature of the psychedelic experience. We learn that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an enthusiastic proponent of LSD for treating addiction.

The hippies are there, of course, with the long hair and loud music that scared the Silent Majority into line with the drug war. One revealing clip from this period shows a clean-cut young woman reading a pamphlet titled “LSD: How Can We Fight Back?” The story could have easily ended there.

They say that “Only Nixon can go to China.” Likewise, the public faces of the new psychedelic renaissance bear little resemblance to Timothy Leary. They’re mainstream MDs and scientists with impeccable credentials. Neurons to Nirvana features a number of them.

There’s Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and Charles Grob of UCLA, both of whom have studied the use of psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. Ingrid Pacey, M.D., studies the use of MDMA/Ecstasy for treating PTSD. The who’s who includes Stan Grof, David Nichols, Stephen Ross, David Metzner, and many others.

Most important, we hear from patients, people suffering from serious medical conditions who found relief through drugs that were feared and condemned for half a century. These are the people who will bring the psychedelic renaissance to the mainstream public. Regardless of your politics, everybody has a grandparent with cancer, a spouse with a drinking problem, or a friend who came back from the Iraq war with PTSD. The village comes together when there’s a little girl trapped in the well.

Neurons to Nirvana provides an excellent introduction to a vast and messy topic. There are other films that cover specific aspects of the psychedelic story in greater detail, but none that give a better overview. It’s the one to have if you’re just having one.

Neurons to Nirvana is available on iTunes and on Mangu.TV. It’s also playing in selected theatres around the country.

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“Neurons to Nirvana” in Madison

The Wisconsin premier of “Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines” will be on Monday, April 7, at 5:00 PM in the Marquee Theatre at UW Union South. This documentary explores the new science of psychedelics with some of the leading researchers in the field. After the film, there will be a Q&A session with director Oliver Hockenhull, UW scientist Nick Cozzi, Northern Illinois University psychologist Thomas Roberts, and therapist Bruce Sewick. See you all there?

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“Machine elves” identified at last?

The other day I was listening to a Shpongle album with a song that included an audio clip of Terence McKenna. They sped up his voice and distorted it to make him sound like an insectoid alien or, perhaps, one of the “self-replicating fractal machine elves” he encountered under the influence of DMT.

Anyway, while the music was playing, my wife walked into the living room. The following conversation ensued:

My wife: “What’s that?”

Me: “Shpongle.”

My wife: “Oh, I thought you were watching the Teletubbies.”

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Psychedelics and autism

The most recent Psychedelic Salon podcast features new research on the use of psychedelics (specifically MDMA/”Ecstasy”) for treating social anxiety due to autism.

Psychologist Alicia Danforth surveyed autistic adults with MDMA experience. Many reported sudden, dramatic, and long-lasting improvements in social anxiety due to the use of MDMA. These reports are anecdotal and Danforth emphasized the need for further, quantitative research.

To that end, Danforth and UCLA Psychologist Charles Grob are currently recruiting adult volunteers with autism for a clinical trial of MDMA therapy. More information is available on ClinicalTrials.gov.

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