I believed weird things

Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Thoughts | 9 comments

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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9 Comments

  1. Five years ago I was a reiki “master”, a hypnotherapist, a crystal healer AND I thought I was psychic. Thanks to my personal heroes and a LOT of hard work, I’m now the volunteer managing editor for the blog on http://Randi.org, one of le largest skeptical organizations in the world.
    If I can learn to be a critical thinker, anyone can.

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    • Good for you! Thank you for stopping by!

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  2. My rational mind says that astrology is complete bull squeeze, starting with the fact that constellations have NO objective, real existence whatsoever…..and yet, I often (not always) read my horoscope in the paper. I know perfectly well that it’s ludicrous, and yet, the part of me that craves significance finds it comforting that there’s a SPECIAL message in the paper EVERY DAY, just for ME (well, and 1/12th of the population). Funny how the mind works, or, in some cases, doesn’t….

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    • Hitting certain developmental stages as you grow up in different parts of the year do actually affect your personality. It’s not the constellations that tell the horoscope writers who you are. It’s an indication of your personality, based on patterns the greeks and egyptians observed thousands of years ago.

      Month you were born affects: Whether it was cold or warm when you learned to walk. What kind of food was available when you learned to speak. Whether you were going to school or on vacation when you hit puberty. Things like that all leave us with slight tweaks to our personality. It’s not that horoscopes are so vague that they apply to everyone. For the most part, it’s that they are just vague enough to apply to all people of the same astrological sign, because they all have roughly the same seasonal things in their environments effecting their lives at the same point in their history.

      Astrology is decent to read up on as long as you don’t think it’s majick.

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  3. Great writing. I’ve been through similar deprogramming by simply taking the time to understand what reason, evidence vs. intended ignorance based upon faith in everything supernatural. Life is so much better not believing in nonsense and spending my cash on things that make a tangible difference.

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  4. When something such as meditation or guided imagery or music causes the body to relax and be at rest, this can be of great benefit. Especially in the case of, for instance, cancer patients. Such “irrational” ideas as positive images of healing have actually helped these individuals live longer lives of better quality … and this information comes from genuine scientific studies published in highly respected medical journals. What can possibly be worth nothing more than a sardonic sniff or a rational joke about this? It only proves the power of the brain and body working together.

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    • I’m not denying that these things are good for us, in fact I would say they are very beneficial if done under the guise of meditation etc. I agree with Sam Harris about this one.

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  5. I grew up with a religious mother and a science based father, but they both believe weird things as well. I was always aware through the years that I was religious and the years I was a new-ager, and the years I was a witch (and at times they overlapped a bit) that I was just pretending. I never actually believed any of it, even though I could have long discussions about doctrine and later I could draw a magic circle and call the correspondences and tell you why they supposedly worked. I knew I was indoctrinated, but went along with it for acceptance into the group. Now that I am true to myself and admit that I am an atheist and am skeptical about supernatural things, I often wonder how many people know they are pretending and how many are truly brainwashed.

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  6. My weird belief would be gaming superstitions, which still ‘feel’ true, even though I know intellectually that they’re without basis in fact.

    I still get a little anxious about ‘wasting’ a favorable die roll, even though I’m aware that there’s no causal connection between different rolls even using the same dice.

    I also was a creationist as a child, but it was my late grandfather, also a creationist, whose fossil collection spurred my interest in science.

    What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs?

    It was the lack of continued indoctrination in the Church after my preteens and continued access to scientific literacy that led to seeing the world in a different and more satisfying way than what religion offered.

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