Humans can believe some pretty strange things. I have met people who claim to be able to see my "aura", and that depending on the "colour and shape" of this aura, they can make a determination of my physical or mental health. I've met others (actually sometimes the same people) who claim that by laying their hands on me, they can cure me of whatever ails me, from sore muscles to an upset stomach. Even stranger, I have met people who claim to be able to see into my future by "interpreting the cards", using the random placement of tarot cards as a "glimpse into the other side". All of these are bogus of course, and when tested under reasonable scientific conditions, will fail like superstition does.

What is interesting is that people seem so ready to believe these things. Many who I have met in life that believe these things have no affiliation with organised religion or dogma, instead following "their own path of self discovery". Often times when a person believes in the powers such as crystal gazing, they will also believe a whole gamut of equally implausible things, like those mentioned above, and things like iridology, positive thinking and vision questing. Most people I knew who believed in this stuff have grown out of it, and moved on to become quite rational in thought. Myself included.

Yep that's right. For a long time I believed in the "great hidden powers" of these things, with the attitude that "there is much more to the world than we will ever see, and much of it is hidden just beyond our sight." Let me explain.

In my years after high-school and before I began university (this is where I had much of my superstition squeezed out of me) I was on pretty much of a loose end. I was not really sure what I wanted to do with life, and my friends were the same. This life involved a fair bit of pot smoking and introspection, festivals on mudflats in the country, protests against the war in Iraq (the first one) and lots of doing not much except sitting around and sharing ideas. We all have one thing in common, and that was that we believed in the world of supernatural energies, lay-lines and pyramids, past-lives, future lives and shared energies of people like telekinesis and ESP. We walked into these situations of experimentation fully expecting the results to pan out, to give us a peek into the hidden world of the spirit, and of course we were proven "correct". When I say "correct" I mean that we perceived a result. Let me give you an example.

In a Reiki situation, when a "master" lay hands on me, I expected to become relaxed. He would ask me if I could feel the energy of the universe flowing through me. Of course this made me aware of my body, the blood coursing through my veins, heartbeat, breathing and skin sensations. I was convinced that this was "cosmic energy" and that it was coming from the universe. Not outer-space, the WHOLE universe. I would become relaxed, and any muscle soreness would appear to have gone away, attributed of course to the juju of the universe. On retrospect of course I realise that it was just me becoming self aware and relaxed enough to let my muscles un-knot, and through the guiding "suggestions" of the Reiki "master". They would always speak in soothing tones, light candles and incense (of course giving these trappings more significance than they were due, claiming that they somehow "purify the air" or "remove negative energies".) These situations are conducive to relaxation, so it's no wonder that I was open to suggestions.

Many of the new-age trappings from the 90s (of course none of it originated then, it all came from shreds of "old mysticism") use these same techniques of relaxation and guided suggestions to make the subject (me) feel something they hadn't noticed before, or rarely notice. A lot of these techniques involve long hours of sensory restriction, sitting still, being silent, meditating and the like. It's funny how things like this can cause the mind to play tricks on us, especially when we have an intended outcome such as a vision or healing or relaxation. There's no denial that experiences were had, but after years of playing around with this stuff I came to realise that it all takes place in the brain.

When the senses are subjected to stimuli such as this, and combined with a desired outcome, it's easy for us to feel like the outcome is reached. And it makes perfect sense that this should be the case, for if we withdraw inwardly not only is the brain allowed to wander, it will wander, seemingly on it's own, but there is always an intention.

After five years at university where I read a lot of history, popular science and literature, it became clear to me that while the ability to relax is useful, that's all it is; relaxation. Far from becoming cynical about new-age quackery, I came to understand that it's all as real as a person wants to believe it to be. In the brain anyhow.

So I find it easier to understand where a person of religious belief is coming from. Religious belief has the added bonus of being foisted upon us from a young age, with most people being indoctrinated as children, and the backing of society which largely says it's not only okay that you believe, in many cases it is expected of you to believe (depending of course upon which system of belief you happen to be born into, all others are claimed to be false).

I think that anything we call "magic" or "mysticism" can be explained eventually, either by science or by critical examination. I can explain a lot of the new-age stuff I used to believe in so deeply as tricks of the mind brought on by altered states of consciousness, and the rest I can explain away by wishful thinking. The problem lies with the fact that people want to believe in things, people want to believe in souls, afterlife, ghosts, Reiki, crystal healing etc. Why would anyone ever want to dispense with an idea that they want to be true? When the belief promises solutions to the questions life throws up at you, why wouldn't you choose to believe them? Even more powerfully, when the belief offers solutions to the one biggest unknown in life (which is death), and claims to conquer this unknown, you can see how the carrot becomes even more tempting. The notion of confirmation bias backs this idea up.

But when it comes down to it, none of us are immune to strange beliefs. What are some of yours?

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Comment by CJoe on May 29, 2011 at 10:27pm experience with a friend of mine is hard to explain. You just sort of had to be there, but... it was just me and her, experimenting with the Ouija board, and visiting a pyschic, and reading wayyy into events that were unfolding "magically" before us.

First of all, I have a weird relationship with the number 21. My parents married Oct 21, I was born 2-1-83... I moved out of the house for the first time at age 21, on March 21, into apartment B21. I lost my virginity on May 21 (TMI?). Also, I caught the bouquet on March 21 (years later) and, later that day, met my current and first boyfriend. The list goes on, so needless to say, I have long believed there's something special about that number for me. I realize all the above is likely coincidence... but my brain insists on seeing a pattern and assigning meaning where there is none.

What happened in the life of me and my friend is just too hard to explain. The short and skinny is that I got together with my boyfriend at the time both the Ouija board and the psychic--independently--said I would, and a bunch of stuff fell into place for my friend as well. We were definitely looking for signs, and I suppose we found them because we wanted to. Not to mention the fact that I had recently lost my faith and belief in god, so I was excited about the prospect of experimenting with things that had been previously forbidden. It was sort of just for fun... sort of wishful thinking... and plain fascinating.

I'll admit I like the idea of all that stuff, but I've always been way too skeptical to fully buy into anything. I guess that's how I lost my faith to begin with. As much as I wanted to "speak in tongues" with the rest of my charismatic, boarder-line Pentecostal buddies, I couldn't conjure the words... because, deep down, I thought it was horse shit. Besides, I'd experimented with "elemental magic" when I was 19, and discovered that was also BS.

Oh well. Here I am, faithless and never happier :)

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 30, 2011 at 3:57am
I have in the past recognized 'something more' to ingroup/outgroup psychology, believing a 'collective consciousness' to exist.  In a statistical way I still think this occurs - we have a lot of processes running in our brain that coalesce into consciousness, and in a group there can be a lot of processes (individual consciousnesses) the coalesce to express the intention of the whole.  These days it is sometimes called 'group think' or 'mob mentality', and I do believe it is a phenomenon that has yet some surprises to be revealed.  I guess the difference is that I used to think there was something meta-physical to it whereas it seems we've not lost our capacity for heard behavior.


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