The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2009

Laura Sanders wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

* * *

You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Neuroscience and Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 4, 2009

magicLaura Sanders recently wrote an interesting article, titled “SPECIALIS REVELIO!  It’s not magic, it’s neuroscience,” in ScienceNews. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Skill in manipulating people’s perceptions has earned magicians a new group of spellbound fans: Scientists seeking to learn how the eyes and brain perceive — or don’t perceive — reality.

“The interest for magic has been there for a long time,” says Gustav Kuhn, a neuroscientist at Durham University in England and former performing magician. “What is new is that we have all these techniques to get a better idea of the inner workings of these principles.”

A recent brain imaging study by Kuhn and his colleagues revealed which regions of the brain are active when people watch a magician do something impossible, such as make a coin disappear. Another research group’s work on monkeys suggests that two separate kinds of brain cells are critical to visual attention. One group of cells enhances focus on what a person is paying attention to, and the other actively represses interest in everything else. A magician’s real trick, then, may lie in coaxing the suppressing brain cells so that a spectator ignores the performer’s actions precisely when and where required.

Using magic to understand attention and consciousness could have applications in education and medicine, including work on attention impairments.

Imaging the impossible

Kuhn and his collaborators performed brain scans while subjects watched videos of real magicians performing tricks, including coins that disappear and cigarettes that are torn and miraculously put back together.  Volunteers in a control group watched videos in which no magic happened (the cigarette remained torn), or in which something surprising, but not magical, took place (the magician used the cigarette to comb his hair). Including the surprise condition allows researchers to separate the effects of witnessing a magic trick from those of the unexpected.

In terms of brain activity patterns, watching a magic trick was clearly different from watching a surprising event. Researchers saw a “striking” level of activity solely in the left hemisphere only when participants watched a magic trick, Kuhn says. Such a clear hemisphere separation is unusual, he adds, and may represent the brain’s attempt to reconcile the conflict between what is witnessed and what is thought possible. The two brain regions activated in the left hemisphere — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex — are thought to be important for both detecting and resolving these types of conflicts.

Masters of suppression

Exactly how the brain attends to one thing and ignores another has been mysterious.  Jose-Manuel Alonso of the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City thinks that the answer may lie in brain cells that actively suppress information deemed irrelevant by the brain. These cells are just as important, if not more so, than cells that enhance attention on a particular thing, says Alonso. “And that is a very new idea . . . . When you focus your attention very hard at a certain point to detect something, two things happen: Your attention to that thing increases, and your attention to everything else decreases.”

Alonso and his colleagues recently identified a select group of brain cells in monkeys that cause the brain to “freeze the world” by blocking out all irrelevant signals and allowing the brain to focus on one paramount task. Counter to what others had predicted, the team found that the brain cells that enhance attention are distinct from those that suppress attention. Published in the August 2008 Nature Neuroscience, the study showed that these brain cells can’t switch jobs depending on where the focus is — a finding Alonso calls “a total surprise.”

The work also shows that as a task gets more difficult, both the enhancement of essential information and suppression of nonessential information intensify. As a monkey tried to detect quicker, more subtle changes in the color of an object, both types of cells grew more active.

Alonso says magicians can “attract your attention with something very powerful, and create a huge suppression in regions to make you blind.” In the magic world, “the more interest [magicians] manage to draw, the stronger the suppression that they will get.”

Looking but not seeing

In the French Drop trick [see video below], a magician holds a coin in the left hand and pretends to pass the coin to the right hand, which remains empty. “What’s critical is that the magician looks at the empty hand. He pays riveted attention to the hand that is empty,” researcher Stephen Macknik says.

Several experiments have now shown that people can stare directly at something and not see it.  For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues tracked where people gazed as they watched a magician throw a ball into the air several times. On the last throw, the magician only pretended to toss the ball. Still, spectators claimed to have seen the ball launch and then miraculously disappear in midair. But here’s the trick: In most cases, subjects kept their eyes on the magician’s face. Only when the ball was actually at the top part of the screen did participants look there. Yet the brain perceived the ball in the air, overriding the actual visual information.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues asked whether more perceptive people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person doesn’t perceive something because the mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers report that people who are very good at paying attention had no advantage in performing a visual task that required noticing something unexpected. Task difficulty was what mattered. Few participants could spot a more subtle change, while most could spot an easy one. The results suggest that magicians may be tapping in to some universal property of the human brain.

“We’re good at focusing attention,” says Simons. “It’s what the visual system was built to do.” Inattentional blindness, he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing us to focus intently on a scene.

Magical experiments

Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to study the effects of laughter on attention. Magicians have the audience in stitches throughout a performance.  When the audience is laughing, the magician has the opportunity to act unnoticed.  Understanding how emotional states can affect perception and attention may lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.  “Scientifically, that can tell us a lot about the interaction between emotion and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.

He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians. “We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but it’s only going to get better.”

* * *

You can read the entire article here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Brain Magic,” Magic is in the Mind,” and “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Entertainment, Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Brain Magic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 29, 2009

From TEDTalks: “First, Keith Barry shows us how our brains can fool our bodies. Then he involves the audience in some jaw-dropping (and even a bit dangerous) feats of brain magic.”

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “Magic is in the Mind” and The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Magic is in the Mind

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 28, 2009

Magician Thurston by libraryimages.netRobyn Kim and Ladan Shams have a nice article, titled “What Can Magicians Teach Us about the Brain?,” in Scientific American.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

. . . . Magicians . . . are masters of exploiting nuances of human perception, attention, and awareness. In light of this, a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, coauthored by a combination of neuroscientists (Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, both at the Barrows Neurological Institute) and magicians (Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson), describes various ways magicians manipulate our perceptions, and proposes that these methods should inform and aid the neuroscientific study of attention and awareness.

Magicians Secrets Revealed

The underlying concept of using quirks in human perception to learn about how the mind works is an old one. Visual, auditory and multisensory illusions, in which people’s perceptions contradict the physical properties of the stimuli, have long been used by psychologists to study the mechanisms of sensory processing. Magicians use such sensory illusions in their tricks, but they also heavily use cognitive illusions, manipulating people’s attention, trains of logic and even memory. Although magicians probably haven’t studied these phenomena with the scientific method—they don’t do controlled experiments—their techniques have been tested over time, perfected by practice and performed under conditions of high scrutiny by skeptical audiences looking to spot the trick.

An example of a visual illusion used by magicians is spoon bending, in which a rigid horizontal spoon appears flexible when shaken up and down at a certain rate. This effect occurs because of how different parts of objects (in this case, the spoon) are represented in the brain. Certain neurons are responsive to the ends/corners of the object, whereas others respond to the bars/edges; the end-responsive neurons respond differently to motion than do the bar-responsive neurons, such that the ends and the center of the spoon seem misaligned when in motion.

Attention can greatly affect what we see—this fact has been demonstrated in psychological studies of inattentional blindness. To misdirect people’s attention and create this effect, magicians have an arsenal of methods ranging from grand gestures (such as releasing a dove in the theater to distract attention), to more subtle techniques (for instance, using social miscues). An example of the latter can be found in the Vanishing Ball Illusion . . . .

At the last toss, the magician does not actually release the ball from his or her hand. Crucially, however, the magician’s gaze follows the trajectory the ball would have made had it been tossed. The magician’s eye and head movement serves as a subtle social cue that (falsely) suggests a trajectory the audience then also expects. A recent study examining what factors produced this effect suggests that the miscuing of the attentional spotlight is the primary factor, and not the motion of the eyes. In fact, the eyes aren’t fooled by this trick—they don’t follow the illusory trajectory! Interestingly, comedy is also an important tool used by magicians to manipulate attention in time. In addition to adding to the entertainment value of the show, bouts of laughter can diffuse attention at critical time points.

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Magic’s Role in Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience can explain many magic techniques; this article proposes, however, that neuroscientists should use magicians’ knowledge to inform their research. . . .

More concretely, the use of cognitive illusions—for example, during brain imaging—could serve to identify neural circuits underlying specific cognitive processes. They could also be used to map neural correlates of consciousness (the areas of the brain that are active when we are processing a given aspect of consciousness) by dissociating activity corresponding to processing of actual physical events from the activity corresponding to the conscious processing.

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The entire aritcle is here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Illusion” or click here for a collection of posts on illusion.

Posted in Illusions, Neuroscience, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Slight of Head

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2008

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Kevin James Illusion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 13, 2008

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Big Papi Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 15, 2008

Last June, we wrote about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and how attributional biases may have explained his increased acrimony toward umpires. Back then, Ortiz was slightly off his normal torrid pace at the plate. One of the top three or four hitters in baseball had morphed into a player about 95% as good and seemingly (if not actually) as clutch. In other words, still one of the best players in the game, if subjectively seeming a bit less heroic, particularly given his constant bickering with umpires over called balls and strikes.

If only Ortiz could go back in time to June 2007. Though the 2008 season is still in its infancy with only 13 of the Sox’s 162 games having been played, Ortiz has the lowest batting average of all Major League Baseball players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Put differently, Ortiz–who was second in all of baseball last season in OBS (on base plus slugging) and who led the American League in home runs in 2006 — has been the worst hitter in baseball this season. Until last night, he was batting .070, which even if you are not a baseball fan, you can probably tell is awful. What makes it especially damaging for Ortiz is that he is a designated hitter and thus does not contribute defensively. He’s paid to hit, and he’s currently the worst hitter in baseball. Big Papi has lost his pop!

No doubt, Ortiz will rebound at some point, just like he did last season. But he’s been dogged with assorted questions about why he is slumping so badly. There is speculation about whether minor surgery on his right knee after last season may be a problem, whether the Sox season-opening trip to Japan may have have affected his performance, whether he’s devoted too much of his attention to starring in advertisements, whether his weight and age are beginning to take a toll on his ability to swing the bat, or whether something else is going on. Ortiz has responded by saying the problem is in his head:

This game is very mental. Your mind takes over. I know in my my situation, my mind works more than anything else. Once you get physically prepared your mind takes over and sometimes you’re fighting, fighting, fighting (yourself). Sometimes you have to chill out and come back with a fresh mind . . . I’m fine. I don’t get frustrated at all. I’m just trying to get back to being Big Papi again.

He has a point. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, baseball players are no less dependent on their minds for their job performance than rocket scientists are on theirs–albeit in different ways. Despite the obvious physical nature of sports and the related demands for elite athletic talent, social psychologists and related mind scientists have found that baseball players, like other athletes, depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain, and its ability to streamline information, to actually play the game. (For related Situationist posts, see The Situation of a Baseball Pitch, (Young) Minds Over Body, The Batting Situation, and the Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.)

It is in part because of the unconscious automaticity of their behavior that leaves them vulnerable to the potentially harmful interference of conscious or subconscious intrusions–athletes can end up “fighting, fighting, fighting” themselves. As David Ortiz struggles “to get back to being Big Papi again,” some of his fans and foes are left also guessing as to the cause of his aberrational slump.

As noted above, they offer and debate numerous possible causal sources, but there is one that we especially want to highlight (in part because it evinces another common theme on this blog): namely, the surprisingly widespread belief in magic:

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

(For a sample of previous Situationist posts on magic go to “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,’” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“)

So, here we go: David Ortiz’s sudden struggles at the dish are analogous to the street light going out.

What is the honking horn? As it happens, the other big Red Sox story this week is about the faith that baseball fans as well as certain baseball-team owners seem to place in the power of a curse. The New York Post had reported that a Red Sox fan, attempted to curse the Yankees’ new stadium by burying a Red Sox jersey at the site. Not just any Red Sox jersey, it turns out, but a David Ortiz jersey. (For more details, see the remarkable four-minute video below; for a legal analysis, check out Geoff Rapp’s post on Sports Law Blog.)

How do you explain Ortiz’s struggles? Honk! Or, as one blogger put it:

The big news on this chilly Sunday in the Fens is that David Ortiz has been given the night off, a chance to clear his head while in the throes of a 1-for-29 slump since April 2. The other big news comes out of New York, where a David Ortiz jersey has been removed from the new Yankee Stadium, after workers jackhammered their way through to remove the offending article. The thought was that the Sox jersey in Yankee foundation would curse the Yanks. But maybe it’s been the other way around? Maybe the jersey, ensconsed in Yankee foundation, was cursing Ortiz.

Last night, Ortiz did something very Big Papi-like: he got two hits. No, they were not big hits. Nor were they clutch hits. Still, it was a noticeable improvement, and the Papi mojo seemed, perhaps, to be returning. His batting average even managed to trickle into the three digit range.

What caused the light to go back on? Easy: the Yankees had jackhammered their way through concrete to find and remove the (apparently backfiring) hex: Deadspin‘s post, “Ortiz Slump Officially Over. Thanks, Yankees!” says it all:

Here’s the thing, Yankees fans. You may have thought that you were heading off some sort of curse by digging up that David Ortiz jersey that was buried beneath your new stadium. But consider this: While the jersey remained buried, it’s owner was hitting .070; last in the majors. In his first game back since the cloth was extricated, Ortiz went 2-for-5, raising his average 34 points, as the Red Sox beat the Indians 6-4. Hank Steinbrenner : “Re-dig the hole! Turn those machines back on!”

We’re hoping the Ortiz light shines brightly this week as the Sox head to Yankee stadium for two games later this week. If not, we urge Red Sox Nation to crank up the voodoo.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Magical Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 11, 2008

lennon.jpgMatthew Hutson has an excellent piece in the latest Pscyhology Today looking at the psychological origins of magical thinking. Among other topics, Hutson highlights some research by Situationist contributor Emily Pronin. Here are a few pieces of the article.

* * *

Last year John Lennon went on tour. He visited, among other locations, Oklahoma City, Waco, New Orleans, and Virginia Tech, spreading a message of peace and love at the sites of tragic events. You may not have recognized him, though, covered in scars and cigarette burns. But to hear him, there would have been no mistaking his presence.

On this journey, Lennon assumed the form of a piano, specifically the one on which he composed Imagine. “It gives off his spirit, and what he believed in, and what he preached for many years,” says Caroline True, the tour director and a colleague of the Steinway’s current owner, singer George Michael. Free of velvet ropes, it could be touched or played by anyone. According to Libra LaGrone, whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, “It was like sleeping in your grandpa’s sweatshirt at night. Familiar, beautiful, and personal.”

“I never went anywhere saying this is a magic piano and it’s going to cure your ills,” True says. But she consistently saw even the most skeptical hearts warm to the experience—even in Virginia, where the piano landed just a month after the massacre. “I had no idea an inanimate object could give people so much.”Maybe you’re not a Beatles fan. Maybe you even hate peace and love. But you are wired to find meaning in the world, a predisposition that leaves you with less control over your beliefs than you may think. . . .

Lennon Piano on tour (AP)Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

* * *

“There are many layers of belief,” psychologist Carol Nemeroff says. “And the answer for many people, especially with regard to magic, is, ‘Most of me doesn’t believe but some of me does.'” People will often acknowledge their gut reaction and say it makes no sense to act on it—but do it anyway. Other times, they’ll incorporate superstition into their worldview alongside other explanations. “For example,” says Susan Gelman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, “God puts you in the path of an HIV-positive lover, but biology causes you to contract the virus from his semen.”

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

* * *

1. Anything can be sacred.

To some, John Lennon’s piano is sacred. Most married people consider their wedding rings sacred. Kids with no notion of sanctity will bust a lung wailing over their lost blanky. Personal investment in inanimate objects might delicately be called sentimentality, but what else is it if not magical thinking? There’s some invisible meaning attached to these things: an essence. A wedding ring or a childhood blanket could be replaced by identical or near-identical ones, but those impostors just wouldn’t be the same. What makes something sacred is not its material makeup but its unique history. . . .

In many cases the value of an object comes from who owned it or used it or touched it, an example of “magical contagion.” . . . Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania and Nemeroff contend that magical contagion may emerge from our evolved fear of germs, which, like essences, are invisible, easily transmissible, and have far-reaching consequences. Well before humans had any concept of germ theory, we quarantined the ill and avoided touching dead bodies. The deep intuition that moral or psychological qualities can pass between people, or that an object carries its history with it, could just be an extension of the adaptive tendency to pay close attention to the pathways of illness.But that doesn’t mean we’re good at evaluating sources of contagion. Nemeroff found that people draw the germs of their lovers as less scary-looking than those of enemies, and they say those germs would make them less ill. She also found that undergrads base condom usage on how emotionally safe they feel with a partner more than on objective risk factors for catching STDs.

2. Anything can be cursed.

Essences are not always good. In fact, people show stronger reactions to negative taint than to positive. Mother Teresa cannot fully neutralize the evil in a sweater worn by Hitler, a fact that fits the germ theory of moral contagion: A drop of sewage does more to a bucket of clean water than a drop of clean water does to a bucket of sewage. Traditional cleaning can’t erase bad vibes either. Studies by Rozin and colleagues show that people have a strong aversion to wearing laundered clothes that have been worn by a murderer or even by someone who’s lost a leg in an accident. Magical contagion can also flow in reverse. Many people wouldn’t want an AIDS patient taking over a hospital bed that they had just left, and about a third of undergrads would feel uncomfortable if an enemy possessed their used hairbrush. “This rests on the assumption that there is no separation of space and time,” Nemeroff says. “The hairbrush and I were in contact, we merged. At that mystical level where all is one, acting on it is acting on me.”

3. Mind rules over matter.

Wishing is probably the most ubiquitous kind of magical spell around, the unreasonable expectation that your thoughts have force and energy to act on the world. Who has not resisted certain thoughts for fear of jinxing oneself? Made a wish while blowing out birthday candles? Tried to push a field goal fair mid-flight using nothing but hope and concentration? Emily Pronin and colleagues at Princeton and Harvard convinced undergrads in a study that they had put voodoo curses on fellow subjects. While targeting their thoughts on the other students, hexers pushed pins into voodoo dolls and the “victims” feigned headaches. Some victims had been instructed to behave like jackasses during the study (the “Stupid People Shouldn’t Breed” T-shirt was a nice touch), eliciting ill will from pin pushers. Those who dealt with the jerks felt much more responsible for the headaches than the control group did. If you think it, and it happens, then you did it, right? Pronin describes the results as a particular form of seeingMichael Hargrove causality in coincidence, where the “cause” is especially conspicuous because it’s hard to miss what’s going on in your own head.

4. Rituals bring good luck.

Whenever I fly, I place my hands on the fuselage as I step onto the plane. The habit began when I was a kid innocently in awe of flying machines, but over the years as I continued to touch the plane and continued to not die horribly, my brain decided I was keeping the apparatus aloft, and now I do it for peace of mind. To witness the mindless repetition of actions with no proven causal effect, there’s no better laboratory than the athletic field. The anthropologist George Gmelch of Union College in Schenectady has paid close attention to the elaborate dances players do during baseball games. Because performance while hitting and pitching is so unpredictable (compared to fielding), most behavioral tics occur on the mound or at the plate. Mike Hargrove was nicknamed “the human rain delay” because of his obsessive shenanigans while at bat. B.F. Skinner famously showed “superstition” in pigeons by locking them in a box, feeding them at regular intervals, and watching them associate random behaviors with food rewards, eventually building up intricate routines of behavior. When you combine kicking dirt and readjusting your helmet with strikes and home runs, you can see how the batter’s box would quickly become an open-air Skinner box.

We use ritual acts most often when there is little cost to them, when an outcome is uncertain or beyond our control, and when the stakes are high—hence my communion with the fuselage. People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

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6. Karma’s a bitch.

. . . . Belief in a just world puts our minds at ease: Even if things are beyond our control, they happen for a reason. The idea of arbitrary pain and suffering is just too much for many people to bear, and the need for moral order may help explain the popularity of religion; in fact, just-worlders are more religious than others. . . .

7. The world is alive.

To believe that the universe is sympathetic to our wishes is to believe that it has a mind or a soul, however rudimentary. . . . It’s not that we think all matter is fully alive—even babies are surprised when inanimate objects appear to move on their own—it’s that we feel all matter has that potential. . . . Lindeman Marjaana, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki, defines magical thinking as treating the world as if it has mental properties (animism) or expecting the mind to exhibit the properties of the physical world. She found that people who literally endorse phrases such as, “Old furniture knows things about the past,” or, “An evil thought is contaminated,” also believe in things like feng shui (the idea that the arrangement of furniture can channel life energy) and astrology. They are also more likely to be religious and to believe in paranormal agents. [Eugene] Subbotsky says there are benefits to thinking animistically. “It’s much more comfortable to think that your fate is written down in a constellation of stars than that you’re one of a certain group of intelligent animals who are lost in frozen space forever.”

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To read the all of the Hutson’s article (we cut out a lot of interesting sections, including “To name is to rule,” “Magical Thinking: Positive psychology or psychosis lite?” and ” Primed For The Future,” click here. For a sample of previous, related Situationist posts, go to “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,'” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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