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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Consciousness as a Look into the Supernatural

Subbotsky Eugene

Doctor of Psychology

Professor, the department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Great Britain

CR0 2GG, Velikobritaniya, London oblast', g. Croydon, ul. Saffron Square, 11

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Abstract: The hypothesis is analysed according to which consciousness is the ability to simultaneously live in two types of reality: perceived everyday reality and invisible magical reality. At some point around 100 thousands years ago, humans became aware of the inevitability of personal death and developed the idea of afterlife – the reality in which spirits of dead ancestors dwell. They also discovered that the spirits have unusual properties: they are invisible, immortal, can read people’s minds and feed on smoke from burning sacrificed animals. Due to these discoveries humans became able to look at their everyday world from another perspective and were surprised that their world was designed very differently from the world of ancestral spirits. That was the moment when consciousness as we know it was born: the ability to view the everyday reality “out of the box”, from the perspective of gods. This ability of reflection gave rise to new forms of behaviour: Executively controlled action and moral behaviour. Around 30 thousand years ago people developed the way to tangibly represent the invisible world of spirits through signs and symbols, such as cave paintings or figurines made from stone and bone. At the same time, or shortly afterwards, people started using symbolic means for utilitarian purposes, for example, for memorising the number of killed animals or manufactured items of clothes. Eventually, symbolic reality gives birth to written language and mathematics. But the emergence of consciousness, along with achievements, also created psychological problems. The main of these problems was keeping everyday and magical realities apart. In order to make this possible, humans developed a new psychological mechanism: the “effort of realities distinguishing” (ERD).” It took millennia for the ERD to achieve the level of perfection it has in modern humans. Like the heartbeat, the ERD in modern humans is automatized and subconscious. Disturbances of the RDE reveal themselves in such forms as hallucinations or religious radicalism. Recent psychological studies showed that the early humans’ belief in the supernatural lives on in the subconscious of modern rational people.

Keywords: symbolic thinking, participation, magical thinking, magical reality, supernatural, consciuosness, imagination, consciousness disturbed, hallucinations, witchcraft

It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God but to create him.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke [1]

Imagine that sitting on a bench in a shady park you obliviously slipped into a daydream. And here, as if by a beck of a magic wand, all the hard problems you have been trying to solve for years are suddenly cracked. Millions of euros are won in a lottery and converted into yachts, private jets and apartments in the world capitals, the world learns of your existence, newspapers write about you and people look at you with their eyes full of admiration. Gradually, however, your thoughts are switched back to the urgent tasks of the day: You think of what you have to do at work, remember your hard conversation with the boss the other day, make plans for tomorrow. You recall that you had promised to call your sick friend in a hospital and that you need to pop in the food store to get some potatoes. When falling asleep late at night you go through the events of the day in your mind, this time slowly and relaxedly, until the river of dreams hugs you and carries away in an unpredictable direction. Day follows a day, and in the vanity of the days you somehow fail to notice that half of your time, and perhaps more than that, you spend in invisible reality of the past and the future. The invisible reality of plans, dreams and memories, like a ghost, accompanies every moment of your life.

Having looked at this invisible reality more closely, you might notice that it consists of two “departments”. One is an imaginary copy of the visible everyday reality (VER). Suppose, having arrived at your office you found that you had left your watch at home. While trying to remember where exactly you might have left the watch, you mentally scan every nook and cranny of your flat: Is it in the drawer? On a coffee table? On the pedestal near your bed? Your flat with all its content is stretched before your mental eye like a blueprint or a map which represents the real flat in one-to-one correspondence. Let us call this mental copy of everyday reality the imaginary everyday reality (IER). In the IER objects and events, as well as known laws of nature and society, are the exact copies of their real life prototypes. Another department of the invisible reality is reality which content doesn’t have prototypes in the everyday reality. In your dreams you may imagine yourself having skills and appearances that you don’t really have, for instance, being able to read other people’s minds, or fly in the air like a bird. In this department of invisible reality the known laws of physics, biology and psychology are suspended: You can travel back in time, ride flying horses, see mythical creatures (e.g., centaurs, mermaids) and talk to gods. Let us call this department of imaginary reality magical reality (MR).

Both the IER and the MR can be made tangible in the form of artificial reality of pictures, movies and verbal descriptions. In every bookshop there is a section of “fiction” with books that contain fictional but realistic events and a section of “fantasy” where the books depict fantastical events. Museums too usually have separate sections for realistic painters (such as Manet) and painters that depict fantastical magical events (such as Dali). A similar division into fantastical and realistic departments exists in cinematography. With the onset of computer era one more form of visualization of invisible reality became possible - virtual reality [2]. An important psychological feature of invisible reality is that it becomes a part of social life only when converted into artificial reality of signs, words or images. When we imagine magical evens, we too have to convert them in symbols, words or images.

Recent studies on animal psychology have shown that popular criteria that distinguish people from animals, such as the ability to use tools, language and social behavior don’t work. Some species of birds and mammals can use tools, communicate through a complex system of signals and use complex forms of social behavior (e.g., cooperation during hunting) [3][4]. But living in the invisible reality or in its artificial representations is the ability pertained only to humans. Animals can use their imagination for solving practical tasks. In Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments chimpanzees could understand that they would be able to reach a banana hanging high under the ceiling in the center of the cage if they moved a box from the corner of the cage to the center and stood up on it [5]. Primates can use “tactical deception” of other animals [6] and even humans [7] in order to get an advantage in reaching the food. However, animals’ imagination can’t go beyond the situation available “here and now”. An animal is chained to the world of perception, and only a leap into the future could free the animal from this psychological captivity. But a leap like that requires imagination powerful enough to break away from the ground of perceptual experience. It is assumed in this paper that this leap into the invisible reality gave rise to consciousness, i.e. to “knowledge about knowledge”.

The following questions arise: When in the course of anthropogenesis did the ability to live in the world of invisible reality emerge? Coping with which challenges in the life of early humans required this ability? How did this ability change the human mind? How do we manage to tell imagined reality from perceived reality?

The puzzle of the Upper Palaeolithic

According to the theory of evolution the early ancestors of modern humans (Hominina) separated from chimpanzees (Panina) in Miocene (about 6-7 million years ago), as a result of adaptation to a changed environment [8]. One hypothesis suggests this was the adaptation from living in trees to living on the ground (Savannah hypothesis) [9], and another argues it was the adaptation from living on dry land to semiaquatic existence in shallow water (the aquatic ape theory) [10]. Eventually this early ancestor evolved into the genus Homo: Homo habilis (2.8 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.76 million years ago) and Homo antecessor (1.2 million years ago). These human ancestors were bipedal, could use fire and tools. Anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa around 200 thousand years ago and migrated out of Africa sometime 50 to 100 thousand years ago. However, for about 150 thousand years behaviour and tools of anatomically modern humans, with a few exceptions, did not differ from those of their archaic ancestors. Approximately 50-30 thousand years ago, in the Upper Palaeolithic period, a sudden advance in cultural development was noted, in the form of complex tools (e.g., traps for catching animals), cave art, figurines cut from bone and stone, more structurally complex dwellings and trade [11]. It is at this time, and relatively suddenly, that humans developed symbolic thinking and art. And here the question arises of what caused this Upper Palaeolithic “cultural revolution”, which brought symbolic consciousness into being?

Belief in the supernatural as the beginning of consciousness

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that what separates humans from other hominids is not the ability to produce tools but the ability of “story telling” [12]. In his view, only when next to the real world people created the imaginary world they were able look at the real world “out of the box” and ask why this world is as it is. Dunbar writes about two types of imaginary worlds: The fictional world of story telling and the “parafictional” world of spirits. The parafictional world differed from the fictional world in that people believed that the world of spirits existed not only in their imagination but also in reality.

Dunbar views religion and story telling as the abilities specific to humans on the ground that these abilities require language, and of all animal species only humans have language advanced enough to make religion and story telling possible. Although plausible, this interpretation tends to the “cognitivist bias”, which was typical for anthropology in the second half of the XX-th century, when advances in cognitive psychology made it possible to explain many types of human behaviour via cognitive mechanisms hard wired in the brain by evolution [13][14][15]. In my view, it is more likely that the belief in the parallel world of spirits appeared first, and symbolic language emerged on the basis of this belief as a means of making the world of the supernatural tangible and communicating with this invisible world . The reason is that language as communication through auditory and visual signals exists in many animal species, but the function of this language of signals is to communicate events that happen in the perceived world (e.g., danger, readiness to mate, the availability of food, etc.). The need to invent a sign and a symbol (e.g., a drawing on a cave’s wall) or a sound addressed to an invisible interlocutor (e.g., a magical incantation) could only emerge when people faced something or someone that was not available in their perceptual field. That is why I think that the belief in the magical world gave birth to the abstract language of signs and symbols, and not the other way around. The first sign or symbol (and the spoken word that accompanied it) was a magic spell representing and addressing the entities that populated the invisible world. The picture on a cave wall or a magical incantation (which could have been the name of the person whose spirit was addressed) were the means to make the invisible and mute world of spirits perceptually tangible and audible . Symbolic representation also made the invisible world accessible not only to shamans (who were likely to be the inventors of the magical world) but also to ordinary tribesmen. The magical world was now depicted through visible symbols and loud words, which opened the possibility to address this world as something available in the perceptual field. But there was more to the first symbols than just tangibly expressing the world of magical reality.

The important feature of pictorial (a drawing on the wall or a figurine cut of bone) or auditory (a spoken word) symbols is that they are polysemantic, e.g., they can represent more than one thing at once. For example, a drawing of a mammoth on the cave wall could represent a spirit of the mammoth which was or would be killed, but it can also represent a living mammoth. It was thus easy for the people to start using symbols for representing not only the divine world of spirits, but also things that surrounded them in everyday life: Living animals they hunted, animal skins they manufactured, roots and fruits they gathered. Having initially created symbolic language for visualisation of the invisible and communication with the spirits, people discovered that symbols can also represent mundane things. So, instead of dealing with real things (e.g., looking for a real animal to kill) people now could deal with symbols representing these things (e.g., with a picture or a word representing the animal they were planning to kill). This ability to operate with substitutes of real things opened the ocean of possibilities, such as remembering, thinking, making plans and building imaginary scenarios. In other words, symbolic language initially appeared in order to serve the belief in the invisible reality of spirits, but the side effect of the ability to employ symbols - the representational thinking – fundamentally changed the way the people processed reality, by moving operations with objects from perceptual into the mental plane.

To summarize, symbolic consciousness is an advanced stage in the development of consciousness. It appears in response to the challenge that people faced when they invented the idea of the invisible world of the afterlife – the necessity “to see the invisible”. This means that the division of the initially monolithic reality into the realms of the everyday world and the world of the supernatural must have happened prior to the onset of symbolic consciousness. So, how did the idea of the supernatural world emerge?

Discovery of personal death and the afterlife

The founder of British anthropology Edward Taylor maintained that the belief in the world of spirits originated from subjective experiences of early people, such as dreams and hallucinations [16]. Having taken these subjective images for reality, people created the invisible world of gods and spirits and started to believe in this world, thus making an error of judgement. Although Taylor published his theory in 1871, this theory is an early case of cognitive bias, since it deduced the belief in gods from an error of thinking. American neurobiologists Neuberg, d’Aquili and Raus offered a more existential approach [17]. They see the origin of the belief in the afterlife in the human need to cope with the fundamental unpredictability of existence. Unlike animals, humans were able to get aware of the fact that they are mortal beings, and this awareness caused a deep feeling of frustration. Inventing the idea of the afterlife helped to reduce the frustration. Natural selection favoured the individuals who believed in the afterlife over those who did not. The authors thus view the belief in the invisible reality as a useful survival mechanism, which, due evolutionary selection, became hardwired into the human brain. In support of their theory the authors conducted experiments using advanced imaging technologies to study brain activity during "peak" meditative states; they found significant correlations between the activity of certain areas in the brain and subjective religious experiences. Whereas these correlations don’t tell us anything about how human consciousness might have emerged, the idea that the belief in the afterlife is connected to the fear of death is worth a closer look.

Burials with artifacts (tools and decorations) placed in the grave are the first available signs suggesting the belief in afterlife [18]. The earliest burials of this type are around 100 thousand years old and belong to anatomically modern humans [19]. Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals, who coexisted with anatomically modern humans for thousands of years, also left this kind of burials [20]. There are observations that even some animals – chimps, elephants and other mammals - act as if they understood that a dead or dying conspecific is in a special state [21]. But the animals don’t project death of a conspecific onto themselves. It appears that only humans had imagination powerful enough to be able to realize that what happened to their diceased tribesmen would also happen to them. In order to be able to invent the idea of life after death, people first had to discover that life will end in death for each of them and be shocked by this realization. But for such a discovery the power of the imagination was key, since unlike death of their tribesmen, the person’s own death was always in the invisible reality of the future.

The feeling of frustration and fear that resulted from the discovery of personal death gave birth to the idea that death is not the end of a person. Leaving his or her dead body behind, a person lives on as a spirit. This was the idea of the afterlife. With the idea of the afterlife for the first time in human history the initially monolithic mind splits into two parts: The everyday reality and the reality of the supernatural. On this ground I suggest that consciousness is a divided reality of the mind that emerged in the Middle Palaeolithic. In its early stage, consciousness existed as the idea of the alternative world of spirits and revealed itself in the form of ritualistic burials with grave goods and early animal cults. The slow progress in the Middle Palaeolithic material culture indicates that the early consciousness made little impact on human behaviour. Tens of thousands of years may have passed before this early consciousness acquired a new language – the language of symbols.

Symbolic consciousness and the revolution in human behaviour

Analysis of the origin of art suggests that images of animals and people in the Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings opened the doors into the invisible magical world where spirits of animals and deceased ancestors dwelled [18][22]. It appears therefore that the division of reality into the everyday world and the world of the afterlife that emerged in the Middle Palaeolithic was lifted up to a higher level in the time of the Upper Palaeolithic. A new type of consciousness emerged – the symbolic consciousness , which portrayed the invisible world of the afterlife through painted or carved images and sculptures. Making the invisible world tangible through symbolic representation may have made the world of the afterlife more complex and diverse. This diversification of the invisible reality culminated in ancient Egypt with its detailed descriptions of the underworld, the kingdom of the dead and all the magical creatures and deities that populated this world. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the pantheon of traditional deities of polytheistic religions was replaced with demons and angels that dwell in inferno and paradise, sharing these invisible realms with the souls of deceased people. Nevertheless, in the modern world, just like in the Upper Palaeolithic, the supernatural reality is represented through art – written words, sculptures and pictorial images. The symbolic consciousness of the Upper Palaeolithic is also the modern consciousness.

Some anthropologists noted that apart from communicating with the divine world, art also had a utilitarian function of preserving information [14]. This conclusion follows from such artefacts as bone plates covered with parallel lines, which probably designated the quantities of valuable objects, e.g., killed animals or processed animal skins. Eventually signs and symbols designating mundane objects (tools, animals, clothes) developed into a language devoid of referencing to the divine and aimed at representing imaginary everyday reality (IER).

Although symbolic consciousness is linked to other psychological functions (e.g., sensation, perception, memory, language, thinking and imagination), it cannot be reduced to these functions; it also is not a sum of these psychological functions. Consciousness has a structure and functions of its own. Structurally consciousness consists of three related but separate types of reality: Visible everyday reality (VER), imaginary everyday reality (IER), and magical reality (MR). The crucial feature of consciousness is that it has a bipolar structure, in which everyday world (represented by the VER and the IER) is juxtaposed with magical reality; this juxtaposition of two cardinally different realities allowed early modern humans to break away from captivity by the VER and look at the VER out of the box, as if “from the perspective of gods”. This newly formed ability of reflection – looking at the VER from the perspective outside the VER – drastically changed human behaviour by opening the door to executive control and critical thinking. It became necessary for people to watch themselves in order not to offend invisible creatures – gods and spirits. The invisible and ever-present eye of gods made it possible for rules of morality to enter the human life. Indeed, before the invention of the MR people’s social behaviour must have been similar to social behaviour in animal groups and was based on instincts and learning through conditioning. The discovery of the MR changed this: There appeared a controlling agent – gods and spirits – that superseded the power of tribal leaders and was never asleep. For example, if a person didn’t share his or her food with other members of the group, this would offend the spirits which then may punish the offender. Along with changing human social behaviour, symbolic consciousness also revolutionized human thinking, moving people’s operations with physical objects inside the human mind and thus opening the way to science.

In sum, consciousness created the ground for morality, science and philosophy, but it also made human life more complicated by forcing people to maintain the division between everyday and magical realities. Having created magical reality people were now forced to constantly coordinate their own behaviour with that of the creatures that populated the MR. I will be calling the process of maintaining the division (the borderline) between everyday and magical realities “the effort of realities distinguishing” (ERD). For a long time in history the ERD mechanism was imperfect and people frequently conflated the worldly and the divine. This conflation was manifested in superstitions, visions, everyday magic, magical healing, witch hunting and other psychological and social phenomena. Eventually the ERD mechanism improved and became automatized. In the everyday life of a modern mentally healthy person ERD functions subconsciously and is rarely noticed, like we rarely notice our heartbeat. However, life becomes more troublesome when under certain conditions ERD mechanism starts faltering. Let us consider some of these conditions.

Voices of gods and schizophrenia

The etching by Francisco Goya “The sleep of reason produces monsters” depicts a person immersed deep in sleep, his reason dulled by slumber and bedevilled by monstrous creatures that prowl in the dark [23]. For me this picture is a symbol of the disturbed ERD, when the magical world trespasses on the world of everyday reality. So, when does the ERD emerge in the course of individual development?

Psychological research indicated that from the age of 4 to 6 years children become able to distinguish between perceptual objects (e.g., a perceived cup), imagined objects (e.g., an imagined cup) and fantastical objects (e.g., a flying dog) [24], yet only adults can formulate what the differences are. Further research revealed that educated adults view imaginary realistic objects (e.g., an imaginary spoon) to be as stable and permanent as their perceived prototypes; by contrast, they regarded fantastical objects (e.g., a cat with the fishtail) as unstable and in danger of turning into another fantastical creature (e.g., a flying dog) at any moment [25]. These data show that the ERD is not hard wired into the brain and matures gradually with age. In the everyday life when we do or see something, e.g., speak with another person or watch a movie, we automatically assess the actions (words) of the other person or the movie clips as belonging either to ordinary or to magical reality. If we see a person in the street who is talking to himself or herself, we may be in doubt about this person’s normal state of mind. This psychological activity, which is mostly subconscious, is the ERD in action. But have people always been able to employ the ERD as smoothly and effectively as they to it today?

American philosopher Julian Jaynes hypothesised that approximately up to 1000 BC the people lacked the ability to reflect upon their own thoughts [26]. In certain circumstances people took their own thoughts for voices of gods and obeyed these voices unconditionally. In other words, ancients experienced auditory hallucinations similar to those in today’s schizophrenic patients. In this type of mind cognitive functions were divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys, hence Jaynes called it a bicameral mind . For instance, the voices of gods that characters of Homer’s Iliad heard was not a literary metaphor but an accurate description of the voices people of the times written about in Iliad heard. When the ability of self-reflection finally evolved people stopped hearing voices, however under serious mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, the ability of self-reflection gets blocked and the patients begin to hear voices, which they sometimes still attribute to gods [27].

From Jaynes’s hypothesis it follows that before 1000 BC the belief in the divine reality was already there but the people were unable to keep visible and invisible realities separate and the ERD mechanism was not yet formed. This hypothesis remains controversial and was criticised for insufficiency of evidence, both historical and neurological [28]. In my view, historically the ERD mechanism must have appeared in people much earlier then Jaynes suggests; this mechanism probably evolved in the Middle Palaeolithic as a result of the discovery of afterlife. The reason is that without the ERD early people would constantly mix the mundane with the divine, thus making it hard for themselves to effectively function in the everyday life, both socially (e.g., communication during hunting or war) and biologically (e.g., coping with all the chores of daily life). Conflation of everyday and magical realities did indeed happen throughout all history, but in the form of superstitions rather than hallucinations. For instance, ancient Romans believed in household deities which protected the home (the Lares); these gods were represented by small idols and treated as members of the family, but there was still the understanding that the gods had a realm of their own to live. Occasionally people indeed reported seeing images or hearing voices from the realm of the supernatural (e.g., images of pagan gods, mythical creatures, Christ or Virgin Mary), but those were individual cases and not a stable feature of consciousness. The ancients may have been superstitious people, but they were not zombies. They must have felt being under the constant surveillance of gods, yet still had a free choice.

Nevertheless, Jaynes illuminated important features of consciousness: The division of reality into the ordinary and the supernatural, and the difficulties that arise from the necessity to live in both of these realms at once. Today the life in the split reality most clearly reveals itself in the phenomenon of magical thinking.

Magical thinking and the price for consciousness

Both children and adults are happy to immerse themselves in the world of magical thinking. We enjoy watching films with magical events, reading books about magic, pondering mystical paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali. In dreams we fly in the air, see animals speaking human languages, travel back in time. In the world of magical thinking, like in the pavilion of distorting mirrors, the everyday and the magical, the possible and the impossible are freakishly intertwined. In this world the known laws of physics, biology and psychology are suspended. We are pulled to this world by its strangeness, novelty and tantalizing unpredictability. In the world of magical thinking we rest from tiring dullness of the everyday life. Apart from resting, the immersion in the magical world performs some other useful functions: It stimulates creative thinking, helps us to get rid of frustrating experiences, gives us the feeling of strength and control over our lives [29][30].

Since it is commonly accepted that magical thinking unfolds in the realm of imagination, our excursions into the world of the supernatural go well together with our belief in science. Our minds maintain the borderline between the world of everyday reality in which things follow the laws of science, and the world of magical thinking where the laws of magic hold sway. This juxtaposition between magical and everyday realities is important for education, since the laws of science become more salient when bounced from the laws of magical reality. Going through the adventures of Alice in the Wonderland, admiring magical feats of Harry Potter and his friends, a child becomes aware that the everyday world is built on different grounds and obeys different laws. This awareness helps children better understand and remember the laws of physics and other sciences. It also facilitated the development of executive function – the children’s ability to consciously control their thoughts, attention and actions [31]. But the ability to distinguish between the magical and the physical (the ERD) doesn’t come naturally. Studies have shown that before the age of 9 to 10 years the ERD is unstable and magical reality can easily trespass on the everyday world [32]. Yet, even in educated adults the ERD can fail, which results in magical thinking turning into magical behaviour . Let us consider what happens when the ERD is undermined.

Physical science tells us that we cannot affect inanimate matter in a way other than through one of the four known physical forces: Gravitation, strong and weak nuclear, and electromagnetism. Indeed, we cannot make the sun rise by just thinking hard about it, or cause a car accident to a person whom we dislike by wishing him or her to have an accident. But physical science doesn’t take into consideration the fact that out thoughts and wishes exist not in the physical world, but in the world of other thoughts and wishes. Yes, our thoughts cannot directly affect physical objects, but can they affect our other thoughts and emotions? Psychological studies have shown that if a person had thought about something to happen (for instance, that a certain person has a car accident) and such event did really happen, then contrary to common logic the person develops a sense of guilt and feels responsible for the accident. This fusion between thoughts and real events can bring distortions in people’s behaviour by converting routine actions into magical rituals. Distortions of this kind are particularly pertinent to people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – a mental disorder when people feel a need of doing certain actions, which in reality have no effect on their lives, like frequent excessive hand washing or checking if a door is locked [33]. Consciously people with OCD understand that there is no a causal link between their compulsive actions and real life, yet they find it hard to abstain from ritualistic behaviour. Although OCD affects only about 2.3% of people [34], experiments indicated that in certain circumstances most people subconsciously follow the magical “law of participation”, according to which a magical link can exist between two events or objects that are causally unrelated one to the other, such as a person and the person's picture or a piece of clothes. For instance, in one such experiment people were more willing to taste sugar water from the bottle labelled “Sucrose” than from the bottle labelled “Sodium Cyanide”, despite they knew that both bottles contained sugar water and they themselves had labelled the bottles [35]. Studies have shown that at the level of the mechanisms of disgust and fear of contagion, which are mostly subconscious, the ERD faints and human behaviour begins to follow the laws of magical reality.

One more manifestation of the relaxed ERD is people’s emotional reactions to magic. In the Western mind-set magic is associated with dark forces yet contains a degree of fatal attraction. This ambiguous attitude towards magic is exposed in some masterpieces of fiction, such as Goethe’s “Faust” and Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. Because of this duality in the cultural disposition people’s feelings towards magic are likely to be mixed. On one hand, people are curious towards magic and eager to experiment with it, but on the other hand they are fearful that involvement with magic may harbour hidden dangers. To examine this expectation, educated adults were offered a magic spell that aimed at helping them to see their chosen night dreams [36]. Some of the participants declined the offer, but the majority accepted it. The results showed no a significant difference between these two categories of participants in the number of chosen dreams seen; however, participants who had accepted the offer saw significantly more bad dreams and nightmares than those who had declined the offer. This suggests that despite their conscious disbelief in magic, subconsciously the participants were anxious that involvement with magic might have a price to pay and this anxiety resulted in them seeing bad dreams. Like in the aforementioned experiments, this experiment demonstrated that at the subconscious level the ERD is weakened and people start taking magic seriously.

But can the ERD falter in people who are in full possession of their conscious critical thinking? To examine this possibility, participants (university undergraduates and staff members) were asked to imagine that a professional witch approached them in the street and offered to put a magic spell on their future lives [37]. In one experimental condition the spell intended to make participants rich and famous, and in another – to make them servants to the dark forces. In an interview the participants denied that the magic spell, either good or bad, could change anything in their future lives. However, when the risk of denying magic was increased (the participants were asked whether they would allow the witch to proceed with the spell), all of the participants said “no” to the bad spell and explained their decision by admitting that the bad spell might indeed adversely affect their future lives. To their own surprise, the participants discovered that in this situation they behaved as if they consciously believed in magic.

To summarize, the price we pay for consciousness is the necessity to keep magical and everyday realities separate. Only making this distinguishing effort non-stop, which requires a serious investment of mental energy, guarantees normal functioning of consciousness. There are conditions (e.g., when the mind functions subconsciously or when the risk of disbelieving in magic becomes too great) under which the ERD is starts faltering. But what happens when the ERD fails entirely?

Consciousness disturbed

One of the forms of failed ERD is religious extremism, when the values of the invisible world of the supernatural begin to take the upper hand over the values of everyday reality. Psychological and social causes of religious extremism remain unclear [38]. There are reasons to think that religious extremism is a main factor in framing a suicidal terrorist. Psycho-anthropological analysis of Palestinians ready to become suicidal terrorists showed that they did not differ from other members of their social environment in educational background, wellbeing or mental health. The only feature that distinguished radicalised Palestinians from their ordinary compatriots was intensity of their religious zeal and the belief that their destructive actions are sanctioned by god [39].

Causes of the failed ERD in mental disorders are studied more thoroughly. University male students who scored higher on their MMPI Schizophrenia scale also scored higher on the Magical Ideation scale [40]. Schizophrenic patients showed higher propensity to resort to magical thinking in reasoning than a control population of similar age [41]. Schizophrenic patients with hallucinations and OCD patients were found to score higher on the scales of superstition and responsibility beliefs in relation to one's own thoughts than the clinical control group and the non-clinical group [42]. These data suggest that the schizophrenic mind is vulnerable to intrusions of magical reality into the reality of everyday life. However, phenomenology of hallucinatory states in schizophrenic patients shows that the degree to what magical reality overlaps with everyday reality is culturally and historically conditioned.

Indeed, Russian psychiatrist Victor Kandinsky (1849-1889) described hallucinations of schizophrenic patients that he and his foreign colleagues observed; these descriptions show that many of the patients' hallucinations were influenced by their religious beliefs. For example, one of his female patients reported seeing a demon who spread his black wings over the whole St Petersburg; another patient experienced the vision that he was looking down at the “abyss of hell” and saw the devils going in and out of it; still other patient hallucinated that she turned into an angel, grew wings and “flew a long distance” [43, p.17]. Sometimes visions of paradise and inferno included images of mythical creatures. One patient reported that he was in paradise that looked like a nicely decorated room in which strange animals resembling a mix of dolphins and small dogs were jumping. Finally, often patients reported having a telepathic communication with god or the devil. But is the content of schizophrenic patients’ hallucinations today different from that of the patients who lived over a 100 yeas ago? If it is, then one can expect to hear reports about UFO’s and aliens instead of angels and demons. Memoires by Arnhild Lauveng, born in 1972 in Norway, support this expectation [44].

When she was 17 Lauveng was hospitalised with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later she recovered and became a psychologist. She recalls that in the hallucinatory states she saw various animals (wolves, crocodiles, rats) that sometimes were of unusual colour and size; however, the animals behaved according to their nature. For example, wolves nibbled her legs to the bone and rats could bite but none of those creatures spoke human languages or could fly in the air. She also heard voices and saw images of people. For instance, solitude was represented by a slim woman wearing blue and red dress at once. The woman was silent and looked like one of her former teachers. Altogether, Lauveng’s hallucinatory world looked more like imagined everyday reality than like magical reality. However, in her hallucinatory world there were some details that violated the known laws of physics: Distortions of space (e.g., a pavement border seems a few meters in depth instead of a few centimetres), unexpected appearances of creatures in places where they were not supposed to be (e.g., wolves in a hospital ward), incompatible colourings of objects (e.g., a dress which is blue and red at once, orange crocodiles). Other patients in Lauveng’s ward saw aliens, Martians or spies.

Lauveng suggests that hallucinations are not arbitrary images but reflect a person’s life experience and symbolically represent some unresolved problems. For example, in her past Lauveng associated rats with the “rat races” – the image of “winning for sake of winning” rather than for achieving some sensible goals. Lauveng argues that “races” of this kind are imposed on a person by society, and the rats in her hallucinatory world represented her disappointment with the fact that much of her life was given to this kind of meaningless and forced activities. Interpreting hallucinations as symbols unequivocally links them to magical reality, for the language of symbols is the language of magical thinking. More important, the content of her hallucinatory world clearly shows its link to the cultural-historical background. When Lauveng fell ill she was a Scandinavian teenager living in a technically advanced and not very religious country in the end of the XX-th century. It is not surprising that unlike hallucinations of schizophrenic patients described by Kandinsky, hallucinations of Lauveng and other patients involved images taken from cultural context of their time (e.g., animals, aliens, Martians, and spies) rather than images inspired by religious faith.

These examples demonstrate that the ERD failure in schizophrenia allows magical reality to trespass on everyday reality and be perceived by patients as voices and images. The staff of this “invasion army” is conditioned by cultural context and the patient’s life experience. It is important to note here that in the normal state of mind a person too can experience a strong pressure from images of magical reality (e.g., mirages, visual illusions, stage magic, experiences during film watching and book reading). Yet in the normal state of mind these images are perceived as illusions and kept at bay. For instance, Victor Kandinsky described “pseudo hallucinations” – experiences that looked real but were nevertheless perceived as not real. Pseudo hallucinations can be experienced by both patients with psychiatric conditions and people in the normal state of mind. Kandinsky argues that “proper hallucinations” trick perception and consciousness at once, thus making a person view his or her fantasies as if they did really exist. By contrast, pseudo hallucinations trick perception alone, whereas consciousness keeps functioning normally and qualifies pseudo hallucinations as fantasies.

Altogether, in both mentally healthy (e.g., religious extremists) and mentally disturbed (e.g., schizophrenic patients) people the failure of the ERD means trouble, both for the people and for their social environment. Yet French philosopher Michel Foucault noted that if in the modern world people who confuse the real with the supernatural are not highly praised, their position is far not as bad as it used to be a few hundred years ago [45].

Witch as an intruder from alternative reality

In the Middle Ages people with schizophrenia were viewed as possessed. In the face of Holy Inquisition (XII to early XIX centuries) the ancient hostility of Christianity towards magic became an official institution. Not all those accused of witchcraft by Holy Inquisition were insane, but all people with schizophrenia were under suspicion of their involvement in witchcraft and black magic [46]. In the Inquisition’s view, by treating human illnesses witches challenged the authority of the Catholic church, for they revolted against the illness, which is the punishment imposed on people by god for the people’s sins [47]. American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz pointed out that magical medicine violated the church’s monopoly on deciding when a person should live and die; by helping poor and weak, a white witch undermined the traditional hierarchy of the medieval society: The authority of a priest over an ordinary parishioner, of a lord over a peasant, of a man over a woman [48]. The episode of confrontation between Simon Magus and Saint Peter described in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles [49] got its real life analogy in the confrontation between a witch and Holy Inquisition.

Yet despite centuries of persecution the phenomenon of witchcraft in medieval Europe was not eradicated. The reason is that for a long time medical doctors were a privilege of rich and famous, while ordinary people were left with no choice but to rely on a sorceress. Apart from magical rites white witches used their knowledge of curing properties of herbs, what may have laid the foundation for scientific medicine. While some of the methods of magical medicine were indeed leading towards science, others were based on the magical law of participation and practiced the transfer of an illness from one person to another, or from a person to an animal. It looks like today the “scientific component” of the medieval magical medicine condensed into modern homeopathy, and the “participatory component” remains intact and is used by modern practicing sorcerers [50]. Interestingly, with all the success of scientific medicine it did not manage to replace magical healing even in modern industrial cultures.

In modern medicine’s view psychiatric disorders result from malfunctioning of certain mechanisms of brain chemistry rather than from possession by evil forces. Nevertheless, some features of the medieval practices in dealing with this type of disorders are still there. Thomas Szasz notes that modern clinical assessment of psychiatric patients has something in common with the medieval ordeal by water, which was used in the XVII-th century England for testing a person’s connection with the devil. A person accused of witchcraft was thrown into the water with her or his hands tied; an accused who sank was considered innocent, while floating indicated witchcraft. The advocates of this ordeal argued that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty. In any case, the accused had no chances to stay alive. In a similar way, in the modern times a psychiatric assessment of a person suspected of schizophrenia is frequently based on the bias that the subject is ill, which practically guarantees that the symptoms of the illness will be found. A Google search for "schizophrenia and witchcraft" brings over 300 thousand results. To a certain extent, in the layman's view today schizophrenics are still associated with the unwelcome guests from the realm of the supernatural. The disturbance of the borderline between the everyday and the supernatural realities still evokes the irrational fear in most people.

Altogether, having emerged in prehistoric times as the person’s ability to live in two realities at once, consciousness fundamentally changed human psychology by making human behaviour executively controlled and giving raise to the concepts of morality, freedom of action and personal responsibility. By looking in the distorted mirror of the supernatural, people created art, symbolic language, and ultimately modern religion and science. But the price for consciousness was high: Psychiatric disorders, witchcraft, witch hunting, Holy Inquisition, suicidal terrorism, and religious radicalism.

Conclusion: Birth of consciousness and the Big Bang

I started this paper with the questions: When in the course of anthropogenesis did people develop the idea of invisible magical reality? What caused the emergence of this idea? How did the discovery of the invisible reality change the human mind? How do people manage to distinguish between everyday and magical realities?

The archaeological findings revealed that around 100 thousand years ago humans began to bury their tribesmen and put in the graves tools, decorations and other artefacts. This suggests that those people developed the idea of the afterlife – the invisible reality in which spirits of the dead lived. Cognitive development provided necessary precursors for this discovery, among which powerful imagination was the most important one. Of all the animal species, only humans were able to escape from captivity of the immediate perceptual field and grasp the idea that sometime, in the invisible reality of the future, every living person is destined to die. This realisation caused an existential shock at seeing a relative or a tribesman dead. The people saw that a person with whom they lived, communicated and hunted together due to some reason suddenly became a breathless body, and understood that the same would happen to all of them. By refusing to accept the fact of death, people assumed that the deceased lives on but left his or her body and passed into another world with that part of him or her that they called a spirit and today we call the soul.

Starting from there, it was easy to conclude that spirits of the dead possessed unusual properties: They were immortal, invisible, could read people’s minds and feed on the smoke of burned sacrificed animals. Having made this discovery, the people for the first time had a chance to look at their everyday world from another perspective and realized that their world had very different properties. The ability to see the everyday reality from another perspective, as if looking at it through the “eyes of gods”, is what today we call consciousness. This ability of reflection gave rise to new forms of behaviour: Executively controlled actions and morality. But most important, the invisible reality presented a new challenge to humans: It needed to be converted into something tangible with which people could operate. This new challenge resulted in people inventing symbols – the tangible images, objects and actions that represented invisible images, objects and actions.

For a long time people addressed invisible spirits by decorating bodies of the deceased and placing artefacts in their graves. At last, around 30 thousand years ago, the people developed a way to “see the invisible” by drawing images on caves’ walls and crafting figurines out of wood, bone and stone. There emerged a symbolic way of representing the invisible and communicating with the invisible. Eventually symbols started to be used for representing mundane objects, for instance, for memorising the number of killed animals or processed animal skins. Both magical reality and imagined everyday reality found their artificial embodiment in the language of signs and symbols. Around three thousand years BC Egyptians developed written language [51], and around two thousand years BC in Babylon and Egypt mathematics emerged [52]. Eventually symbolic consciousness gave birth to modern logical and scientific thinking.

But the beginning of consciousness, having pushed humans beyond the animal world, also brought with it psychological problems. The main of these problems was the necessity to maintain the border between ordinary and magical realities. To cope with this necessity, humans developed a special mechanism - the ERD. It took millennia for this energy consuming mechanism to reach the level of perfection that we enjoy today. In the ancient times, and even in the middle ages this mechanism frequently failed and people’s everyday life was disturbed by the intruders from the realm of magic and the divine. People saw gods, mythical creatures, Christ and the Virgin Mary. Gradually the work of the ERD stabilised, became automatized and descended into the subconscious. But even in a modern person the ERD can fail in situations of stress, illness or danger.

In 1948 American physicist of Russian extraction George Gamow and his colleagues predicted that the Big Bang must have left in the universe some relict background microwave radiation, which was indeed discovered in 1965 [53]. The emergence of consciousness in the Middle Palaeolithic must have left “relict background radiation” of its own in the minds of modern rational people – the people’s subconscious belief in the supernatural. Psychological studies of the last decades of the XX-th century did indeed confirm this prediction. Ousted into the realm of subconscious by modern science and religion, this relict belief in the world of the supernatural keeps feeding magical thinking and boosting creativity in modern children and adults [54]. By making people look into the abyss of the supernatural, the implicit belief in magic forces them again and again – every moment of life – generate the subconscious effort of distinguishing between the two realities and thus maintain the life of consciousness.

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