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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Games with the Supernatural: Magical Reality in the Everyday Life

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 paper discusses the following issues: What is magical reality? What domains of modern life does magical reality penetrate? Why is magical reality important for many people today? What psychological consequences does the engagement with magical reality entail? In ancient times and in the Middle Ages people’s access to magical reality was controlled by religion or practices alternative to religion – witchcraft, astrology and alchemy. In the time of Renaissance art and literature joined forces with religion. In the XIX and XX centuries new ways of contacting magical reality emerged – cinema, the spiritualist movement and parapsychology. Finally, in the end of the XX and in the beginning of the XXI centuries there appeared interactive computer games and the internet. Psychological studies have shown that in modern people the belief in magical reality didn’t vanish, but descended into subconscious. This hidden belief permeates many domains of modern life – economics, politics, medicine, morality, education, entertainment and theories of modern physics and astronomy. Why do children become addicted to computer games? Why do rational people, when faced with choices in economics, often follow the laws of magic rather than common logic? How does it come about that educated people follow political ideas which contradict the people’s own interests? Why does the placebo effect exist? Where do suicidal terrorists take their courage to commit actions of self-destruction? How is it possible that some people go for moral choices and sacrifice their private interests even when there is no surveillance? Why do some scientists call the work of the brain magical? How was it possible that the whole universe once filled the volume smaller than a grain of sand? Answers to these and other questions are hidden in the subconscious belief of modern people in the supernatural. The rapid advance of interactive electronic devices makes the imaginary world of the supernatural more accessible, and the effect of this magical world on a variety of domains of the modern life grows.

Keywords: participation, magic of medicine, magical reality, magic of the brain, magic of morality, magic of politics, magic of economics, belief in the supernatural, magical thinking, wonderland

All, all that threatens to destroy

Fills mortal hearts with secret joy

Alexander Pushkin “A Feast During the Plague” (Translated by Nancy K. Anderson [1])

One of the functions of children's role play is overcoming the inferiority complex: In play, children temporarily forget that they are small and weak, and get the opportunity to rebuild the world as they please by affecting people and objects in a magical way. The computer game «minecraft» can be an example. By immersing themselves into the game, children obtain powers which are truly magical: With a motion of a finger they can create cars, spaceships, gardens, palaces and the whole cities, both on land and underground. In endless labyrinths of underground tunnels the children can travel, chase and kill bad guys or hide themselves from monsters. All is accompanied by nice music, all is full of bright colours and shades of grey. Pulling the children out of this magical world and back into the real world where every achievement costs and the children have to obey rules and make efforts can bring disappointment to the children. Quite understandably, the children resist.

As a result, there appeared a new psychological phenomenon: The addiction to the magical reality of computer games. In some respects, this addiction is similar to the addiction to psychedelic drugs. In the altered state of mind caused by LSD a person can get the intensive experience of freshness of the world and oneness with the surrounding objects. While playing the game of minecraft children may have similar experiences. It is quite possible that in this state of consciousness the children can learn and remember new ideas better than in the normal state of mind. But the addiction to magical reality is also potentially dangerous. We don't know yet whether this addiction doesn't cause some delicate changes to the brain chemistry and what the long-term consequences of this addiction are. But one thing is clear: In children's lives there appeared a new and unexplored activity that can plunge children into the depths of magical reality faster and more effectively than the traditional ways of playing with magic – fairy tales and pretend games.

Playing with computer generated magical reality is just one type of games with magical reality. Intentionally or unintentionally, in modern industrial cultures people play a variety of games with magical reality on a regular basis. On what domains of modern life does magical reality trespass? What motivates people, who live in the world designed by science, to play with magical reality? What psychological consequences can the involvement with magical reality entail? These and other issues I would like to discuss in this paper.


Magical reality, which in this paper I will refer to as Wonderland, is similar to geometry on a sphere. In such geometry the postulates of Euclid geometry are suspended: Parallel lines can cross and the sum of the angles of a triangle can be more than 180 degrees [2]. Likewise, in Wonderland the known laws of logic and nature can be violated: A part of a whole can be equal to the whole, a statement can be both true and false, time can go backwards, horses can have wings and fly, people can get to other universes and little children can solve advanced problems of high math. But Wonderland is not the land of chaos; it has laws of its own. One of these laws is the “thought and matter equivalence” : In Wonderland a thought can instantly come true. In the everyday reality, if we decided to build a house we have to get some bricks and other construction materials, make a plan, lay down a foundation and do many other things before the house can take its physical form. By contrast, in the supernatural reality of Wonderland we can build a palace by saying a magic spell and wishing the palace to appear. Of course, we need to know the magic words or get help from a magical creature. Another law of Wonderland is «participation». According to this law, two objects that are physically unrelated one to the other can have a magical bond between themselves, which lasts forever and acts instantly on a distance. For example, a person's image (e.g., a photo) or the person’s part (e.g., a bunch of the person's hair or a piece of his or her cloths) is viewed as magically connected to the person himself or herself. If a wizard casts a magic spell and burns the piece of cloths of the person to whom the wizards intends to inflict harm, then the target person is supposed to get ill or even die. It is easy to see that “thought and matter equivalence” and “participation” are interconnected, because thought and matter equivalence essentially is participation between a thought and the thought's physical embodiment.

Sometimes we get into Wonderland in our dreams. Indeed, in dreams we can see our deceased relatives, speak with animals and fly in the air like birds. But many of us like to play with the supernatural in the waking state of mind as well. We enjoy watching films with magical content (e.g., «The Lord of the Rings» or «Harry Potter» series), reading books that depict magical events (e.g., «Master and Margarita» by Mikhail Bulgakov), and looking at art objects with include magical characters (e.g., paintings by Dali, Picasso or Magritte). The name for this kind of games with the supernatural is magical thinking . Because magical thinking unfolds within the domain of imagination, it peacefully coexists with our belief in science. But one thing is imaginary play with the supernatural, and quite another – believing that supernatural events and characters really do exist. In the Western world today most people view the belief in Wonderland to be a remnant of ancient history; in a popular view, only small children and a limited number of superstitious adults take magic seriously.

However, psychological studies of the recent decades have shown that deep in the subconscious educated adults still believe in the supernatural [3][4]. For example, according to the law of participation, a warrior’s weapon is magically linked to its owner and can pass the owner’s power and military skills to another person who took possession of the weapon. An example can be found in Russian folklore, where a sword, which belonged to a great warrior, keeps the warrior's power even after the warrior's death and can pass this power to a new owner. With the aim of examining whether this law works in the mind of modern educated adults, in a recent study participants (university undergraduates) were given a golf putter and told that the golf putter had earlier been used by a professional golfer [5]. The results indicated that these participants not only were more successful at putting the ball into the golf hole than the participants who had been told that their putter had just been purchased in a store, but they also perceived the size of the golf hole to be larger. This showed that the belief in that a tool can magically transfer the skill of its owner to another person is indeed present in the minds of modern adults; more important, this belief works by facilitating the performance of those who think that their tool earlier belonged to a person who used this tool successfully. In another study participants (university graduates and undergraduates) were asked to imagine that a professional witch was going to put a magic spell on their future lives with the aim of either making them rich and happy or putting them in service to the dark forces. Although the participants verbally denied that the spell might have any effect on their future lives, they behaved as if they indeed believed in the power of the magic spell [6]. However, the belief in magic worked only in the condition where the magic spell intended to change the participants' own lives; by contrast, if the spell aimed to affect the life of a stranger, the participants did not show the belief in the spell's magical powers. Another experiment showed that participants believed in the magical powers of a psychology experimenter to the same extent they believed in the magical powers of a professional witch [7].

Altogether, experiments revealed that most educated adults deny that they believe in magic, yet in some conditions they behave as if they really believed in the supernatural. Interestingly, people can attribute magical powers not only to professional witches, but also to other influential individuals, such as scientists, politicians, and medical doctors. This subconscious belief of modern people in magic opens the opportunity of manipulating the people's minds, with the aim of extracting political, social and economic gains. Let us consider how manipulating mass consciousness based on people's magical beliefs works in some domains of modern life.

The magic of economics

The popular sentiment «free cheese exists only in a mousetrap» is not a joke but a law of economics, as unbreakable as the law of gravity in physics. Whatever nooks and crannies of Wonderland modern virtual realities bring us to, one thing stays unchanged – the “exchange principle”. One can ride a broomstick, be invisible, travel back and forth in time, turn people into stone, but one cannot get anything from another person without giving the person something in return, even if this something is the person's own life (exchange through violence) or the feeling of moral satisfaction (exchange by exploiting the feeling of compassion and altruism). Still, just like in dreams we sometimes cheat the law of gravitation, it seems to us that we can cheat the law of the «free cheese in a mousetrap».

Every year people get dozens of offers from companies: Buy our goods and your name will be put in a lottery where you can win thousands of pounds. I used to trash such offers but once decided to give it a go – just to see what would come out of this. Coincidentally, the choice of goods was not too bad. I purchased three small but useful objects and began to wait for a lottery win. Of course, I won nothing, but the offers from the same company kept coming, accompanied with the same catalogue. The only small variation happened when the offer came for the forth time; along with the catalogue of goods for sale and a standard set of papers to complete a small poster came with my name and the company's gold medal shown on it. The instruction said «Proudly put on the wall» - a small carrot in the expectation that the suggestion would work again. It reminded me Pinocchio kids story. The marvellous but naive puppet boy named Pinocchio listened to the crooked cat and fox and planted his coins in the Miracle Meadow, hoping that the tree would soon grow dripping with gold coins. Many people in the 1990-th Russia, including scientists with PhD titles, lost their savings in treacherous financial pyramids, which promised unrealistically high rates of capital growth. What does this fact prove? A simple truth: Science education cannot protect a person from deception, which targets the person’s belief in financial magic of Wonderland.

Recall that according to the law of participation things that resemble each other are magically linked one to the other. For example, the rhinoceros horn looks like a penis and is used in some cultures as aphrodisiac. In 2002 American psychologist Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prise for the studies of cognitive biases in economics [7]. One of such biases is the anchoring effect . The effect describes the common human tendency, when solving economic tasks, to rely on information that becomes a frame of reference despite it has no a rational connection with the tasks' essence. For example, if a person is asked to select a two digits number from a pool of numbers and then estimate the approximate cost of various goods (e.g., a brand of wine, a chocolate bar or a computer), then the person who had chosen a larger digit number would estimate the cost at a higher amount of money then the person who had chosen a smaller digit number [8]. Why do people do this? Because unconsciously they follow the law of participation, according to which things can only generate things that are similar to them. If a person selected number 11 then in the person's mind a bottle of wine simply can't cost 50 pounds, but if the person selected number 60 then it can. That is why it's easier for manufacturers to sell a dress which costs 160 pounds if the dress is labelled as having gone down in price from 200 to 160 than if the label only shows the real price of 160.

Another form the law of participation takes is «contamination» - a transfer of properties of an object to another object that used to be in close contact with the former object. For example, people were more prone to wear a washed and disinfected sweater that had been earlier worn by a good person than the sweater that had been worn by a bad person [9]. In his book about the financial crash of the 1929 [10] American economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that during the crisis American president Hoover deliberately employed the law of contamination to elevate the spirit of the population, by practicing meetings that had no practical significance. He invited to the White House various VIP's (e.g., governors of the states, manufacturers, trade union leaders, businessmen, politicians etc.) who discussed issues of no significant value. Nevertheless, in the eyes of general public the impression was building up that some important activity was going on, because the importance of persons involved in these meetings was transferred to the meetings themselves.

In the same book Galbraith maintains that in the moments of crises and those closely preceding crises the influence of the “economics’ guru” – the authorities in business – on the rise or fall of share prices rapidly grows. For instance, when director of “General Motors” John Rascob, while departing from USA to Europe in 1928, predicted the rise of General Motors’ share prices in the nearest few days, the share prices of this and other companies indeed went up sharply the next day. In March 1929 a single optimistic prediction of the director of “National City Bank” John Mitchell helped to inhibit the fall of share prices. What affect the market are not rational calculations but the public belief in special abilities of prominent financiers. Science based predictions of Harvard University professors of economics had a smaller effect on public than arbitrary declarations of big figures in business. Interestingly, as the crisis deepened in the following years nobody accused the business bosses of wrongly optimistic predictions, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people loosing their fortunes, but the Harvard professors’ reputation was irreversibly damaged.

Galbraith himself suffered from financial Wonderland. He published his book on the 1929 financial crash in 1955. When somewhat later that year the financial market collapsed again, some members of the public accused Galbraith’s book of this. Galbraith started to get letters with threats of physical violence and promises of praying for his early death and health deterioration. About that time Galbraith had a skiing accident and broke his leg; some of the accusers took this event as the proof of effectiveness of their prayers. The “thought and matter equivalence” magical law of Wonderland worked out with the perseverance of a machine.

The laws of Wonderland are particularly influential in the area of advertising. Studies have shown that placement of commercial products within films positively affects the viewers’ ability to memorise these products; if a movie character personally uses a product (for example, pours Evian water into a plate in order to give it to a dog), then this increases the viewers’ general positive attitude towards that product [11]. But why do people develop a more positive attitude toward the product used by the movie character than to other similar products placed in the context of the same movie? Because the movie star touches the product, and the people want to be as beautiful and famous as the movie star. The law of participation is at work here: An object that was in physical contact with a celebrity magically absorbs the qualities of the celebrity, becomes “contaminated” with these qualities. Subconsciously the viewers hope that if they use the same product (e.g., Evian water), then some of these qualities will pass to them.

The magic of numbers ascends to Pythagoras (570-490 BC) but it also works today. Among magical numbers number three is perhaps the most popular one: Remember the three piglets of the popular children’s tale, the three musketeers, and the three magical cards. A recent study conducted by psychologists of Georgetown and Californian universities has shown that advertising is affected by the magical influence of number three. If you want a product you advertise to be taken favourably by potential consumers you need to name three positive qualities of the product, and it is irrelevant if the advertised product is a flask of shampoo, a hotel or a presidential candidate [12]. But if you try too hard and name four or more positive qualities – the magic disappears and the advertised product loses its charm in the eyes of consumers. Do you want to positively present a man? “Handsome, intelligent and nice” would do the job, but “handsome, intelligent, nice and a good sportsman” would be too many. Why? As the authors of this study believe, three positive features are perceived by people with trust, but add one or two more and the people start feeling that they are being fooled and pushed to buy a second sort. But why do people trust to only three adjectives? Could it not be because the number three comes from Wonderland and is a magical number? Beside its unique mathematical properties, number three is basic in many world religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Wiccan. In Chinese and Vietnamese mythology number three is a lucky number [13]. Guided by the magical law of participation, people transfer their trust toward number three to the product that has three positive adjectives.

Many people who watch a TV hate commercial advertising that interrupts a program every 15 minutes. But if you look into advertisement clips more closely you might notice that some of them involve good knowledge of human psychology. I was always interested in watching advertisements with magical effects, which violate laws of physics, biology and psychology. Now a chocolate bar is transformed into a small human figure, which is dancing and speaking, now a moving car turns into a running jaguar, now human infants perform athletic feats that can only be done by Olympic champions, animals speak human languages, horses fly in the air, and so on. Why do advertising companies need such effects, which are cognitively complex and probably expensive to make? Do they assume that the magic clad products are remembered better and liked more by potential consumers than the products placed in a nonmagical context? In order to examine this assumption, my students and I composed two films out of advertising clips. One of the films incorporated commercial brands placed in the context of magical effects, and the other had the same or similar brands put in the context of equally interesting and exciting but non-magical effects. It turned out that the brands placed within the magical context indeed were better recognised by the viewers in the subsequent test than the brands placed within the non-magical context [14]. Interestingly, in some participants this memory facilitation effect showed up not immediately after the films demonstration but two weeks later. It looks like with time commercial brands placed within the non-magical context are ousted from the viewers' memory by new visual information, whereas brands associated with Wonderland by the law of participation resist this fading effect and remain in the viewers’ memory for a longer time.

The magic of medicine

Modern scientific medicine has been around for approximately 250 years, but how did people live without it in the earlier times? They believed in the healing powers of medicine men, shamans and priests, and this belief was sufficient for the healing effect to take place. This magical effect of a patient’s belief on his or her physical state is known as the placebo effect, and this effect is still used in medicine today. To achieve the placebo effect, a doctor gives a patient a capsule filled with distilled or slightly sweetened water and tells that this is the medicine for the patient’s illness. It turns out that the patient’s belief in that the doctor is telling the truth can be enough to produce some improvement in the patient’s condition [15]. Recent studies have shown that even when patients are told that the capsule they are given contains nothing but distilled water but taking the capsule can nevertheless help – the healing effect can still follow [16]. In other words, the single belief of the patient in the doctor’s healing powers makes the patient’s brain elicit substances (hormones and opiates) that can, albeit temporarily, reduce the intensity of pain and other symptoms. Of course, the placebo effect cannot cure serious illnesses, such as cancer and tuberculosis, but the fact remains that our thought alone can influence physiological processes in our bodies.

According to some data, up to 35% of medical doctors today occasionally use the placebo effect in their clinical work [17]. The advocates of magical healing methods widely employ the placebo effect as well. Paradoxically, in some cases magic does really work. However, unlike medical doctors, magical healers are not bound by the Hippocratic Oath “do no harm” and may use the placebo effect in circumstances where this effect is insufficient for cure (e.g., in cases such as cancer, Alzheimer and Parkinson diseases) and provokes unrealistic hopes in the patient; as a result, the patient may apply for medical treatment when it is too late.

Homeopathy is another baby of sympathetic magic. In accord with the magical law “an object’s image equals the object” homeopathic medicine relies on the principle that “similar should be treated with similar”. The idea is that the “medicine” should contain substance that causes symptoms similar to those caused by the illness, but in a very slight form. This medicine is dissolved in water or spirit, then some water is added and the solution is stirred, then the procedure of adding water and stirring is repeated up to 30 times. Homeopathic doctors believe that the resulting solution works better than those recommended by official medicine. The mechanism of the healing effect is that the water is “charged” by the energy of the original healing substance, plus the energy of the homeopathic doctors themselves. According to some data, in European countries up to 40% of practicing doctors employ some of homeopathic methods. Clearly, official medicine and chemistry can not account for the mechanisms of “charging” the water by the energy, but even if healing results of homeopathic medicine do not exceed the results of the placebo effect, homeopathic healing might still have some healing effect. It looks like the patients’ magical thinking contributes towards this healing effect. No wonder that in 1999 only in the USA a few million people attended homeopathic doctors [18].

In order to avoid lethal mistakes, in the XX century magical medicine started to present itself not as an alternative to scientific medicine but as a medicine that complements scientific medicine. Few people would argue against the idea that when a patient has terminal cancer and it is necessary to raise the patient’s spirit, then every method should be used, including the rituals of “protective magic” [19]. This is a no loose game: If the magical rituals don’t help, then they don’t do any harm either, but what if they do help?

It turned out that magical medicine could even be used to “cure the destiny”. Everyone knows that destiny can’t be changed. Yet recently Russian TV showed a program about a surgery in Japan in which a person’s destiny is corrected by carving new paths on the person’s palm. And the number of people who would like to “correct the fate” grows. Obviously, these people believe that lines on a person’s palm is the image that reflects the person’s fate laid down in Wonderland. Yet, speaking rationally, to believe that by changing the image one can change the original is the same as to believe that one can change a riverbed by altering the river’s track shown on a map. But rational logic doesn’t work in Wonderland. In Wonderland, causality works both ways: For those who believe that palm lines and fate are magically interconnected this single fact is sufficient for the hope that changing one of the pair may change the other. An interesting question to the believers could be: If an angel (or a demon) who lives in Wonderland changed our fate, would our palm lines change?

The magic of politics

Imagine that in the known Biblical story god did not part the waves of the Red Sea in order to let Hebrew people cross the sea and avoid being reached by the pharaoh’s army; instead Moses taught the people to build large rafts and the people used the rafts to cross the sea. Imagine also that Jesus did not raise Lazarus from the dead; instead he cured a badly ill yet still living Lazarus. Would reducing miracles to a lower rank of rare yet possible events affect the image of political and religious leaders and diminish these leaders’ unconditional respect and authority among their peoples? It is quite likely that it would.

The question is therefore why gods are wizards and not just magnified copies of ordinary people. Who need gods to be wizards – gods or people? It looks like people need this more than gods. First, they need this in order to explain the unexplainable – the origins of the world and the human soul. But most important, people’s leaders need this in order to sanction their political and spiritual power. Indeed, in the animal kingdom a leader (e.g., alpha male) enjoys its authority only temporarily and has to permanently fight for it. In contrast, in a human society a leader can enjoy his or her authority for life and pass the title to his or her heirs. But for this to be possible the leaders have to make the people believe that they are under the protection of gods. For instance, early Egyptians believed that the pharaoh is a son of god. The authority of modern spiritual leaders (e.g., the Pope) is sanctioned by god as well. Finally, as I will argue later in this paper, the advantage of the good over the evil is impossible to maintain without the approval of gods.

The assumption that modern people believe in the supernatural powers of their leaders explains the effectiveness with which the leaders manipulate mass consciousness. The people of Japan believed that their emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), who ruled in the time of the World War II, was the descendant of gods [20]. This popular belief contributed to the fanatical stubbornness of the Japanese army’s resistance during the battles with the US army. In the battle of Okinawa (April 1945) Japanese suicidal pilots (kamikazes) inflicted heavy casualties on the American fleet, and it became clear that breaking Japan’s army resistance by regular weapon can only be done at a great cost. The awareness of this was a main factor in the American’s decision to use the atomic bomb. A kamikaze (“the divine wind” in Japanese) was a volunteer who sacrificed his life to the divine values and expected rewards in the afterlife [21]. Studies suggest that the belief in divine values is the foundation of modern political terror as well. For example, Palestinian suicidal terrorists didn’t differ from their compatriots in any way except their fanatical belief in god [22]. This belief helps a suicidal terrorist to overcome the fear of death, which in ordinary people serves as a tap that prevents releasing the energy necessary for committing an act of self-destructive terror.

People of Russia believed in Stalin as if Stalin were a god. Nobody consciously believed in divine powers of the first president of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, and yet Yeltsin enjoyed unconditional credit of the people’s trust. This credit could only be based on the people’s subconscious belief in the godlike powers of their leader. Without such credit Yeltsin couldn’t get through the reform that contradicted basic interests of the Russian people: To allow oligarchs to appropriate people’s property. In his book “The power of manipulation” Russian sociologist Kara-Murza wrote that it took only two years (1989-1991) for the ideologists of free market economy to persuade the workers that privatisation of plants and factories was in their own interests; this was done by sheer manipulation with the workers consciousness and without giving any proof whatsoever [23]. It is not clear though from Kara-Murza’s argument how it was possible to so easily manipulate with the consciousness of millions of well-educated Russian workers. Nevertheless, Kara-Murza has a point. We only need to remember what was happening in Russia right before the privatisation. In the middle of 1980-th Soviet central television gave its main channels to psychic healers – Anatoly Kashpirovsky and Allan Chumak – who practiced séances of magical healing with millions of people watching. When the TV screens suddenly swapped magical heelers for the ideologists of privatisation, the people’s consciousness was already “softened” and the psychological ground for the suggestion ready. By using this moment, Yeltsin’s economists easily “persuaded” the people that privatisation would magically improve the people’s economic conditions.

In a similar vein, many Western nations today easily follow their leaders' appeals to initiate local wars and change regimes in independent countries, even when in private many people understand the futility of such enterprises and are sorry for the loss of lives of their soldiers and the bloodbaths that usually follow the toppling of unwanted regimes. This apparently illogical behaviour of educated peoples should not be surprising if we accept that the peoples' subconscious belief in the godlike rightness of their political leaders usually overrides rational considerations.

The magic of morality

“I want to be a mean boy” – a 5-year-old boy told me, having watched an American cartoon with a teenager named Ben Ten as a main character. “Why” – I asked. “Mean boys are strong” – the boy answered. And I confess, I struggled to find a persuasive response. The boy was still too young to grasp the idea of rewards and punishments that might await a person in the afterlife. How could I prove to a 5-year-old person that the good is better than the evil? Indeed, Ben Ten is not a kind boy, but he is strong, wit, brave and always wins. In his classroom my boy sees the same: Strong, bold and mean boys take an upper hand, whereas kind and gentle boys try to copy them. On TV we often see lions, tigers and crocodiles catching and eating beautiful little babies of wilder beasts and zebras. The number of documentaries about Hitler dwarfs the number of films describing the life of Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer. Trying to scare the boy by earthly sanctions that might follow his mean deeds (e.g., punishments that he can get from his parents or teachers) is not the right way either. But what is the right way? Where could I find a proper argument for the advantages of the good over the evil? All I could do was to get help from the boy’s magical thinking. My assurance that Santa Claus doesn’t bring nice presents to bad boys seemed to have made an impression, but would this effect last long? And what if the boy discovered that Santa Claus does bring presents to bad boys after all?

Indeed, what is the good, what is the evil? If we view other people as beings equal to ourselves, then we must follow the Golden Rule of morality “Treat others as you want to be treated”. But if we view others as beings inferior to us (like we do indeed view some other creatures, e.g., domestic animals), then we may do with the others as we please. Let us call the belief in equality between people “the good”, and the belief in the inequality – “the evil”. The evil justifies all sorts of manipulations with other people: Slavery, captivity, rape, sadism and murder. But what makes some people believe in the good, and the others in the evil? The popular answer is that people believe in the good because if it were otherwise then the humankind would not have survived and the people would have exterminated each other in the constant “war of all against all”. But this is not so. In the animal kingdom there is no the good or the evil, but predatory animals do not exterminate each other to extinction. A lion that fights with another lion would not kill the opponent if the opponent runs or takes the posture of submission. A human person does not have similar instincts, but humans do have the mechanism that stops them from following the evil: The socially developed ban on killing the tribesman.

The real problem is to understand what goes on inside our minds when we are free from surveillance. Suppose we observe an evil action that stays unpunished or is even rewarded. We find ourselves in a situation like that when we watch films or read books such as “The talented mister Ripley”. In the depth of our minds, where no one can see us, we are free to condemn or approve the evil. Films like that stir our feelings as we unwittingly ask ourselves “If I were in the character’s shoes, what would I do?” Indeed, our primordial instinct, which we inherited from our animal ancestors, dictates us to choose a mean but profitable action, because in nature the strongest and the fittest survives, and choosing the profitable action increases our chances of survival. And now, having watched the film, inside our minds we feel as if we are being torn by two ropes pulling in opposite directions: Our innate egotism pulls us in the direction of the evil, but what pulls us to the good? There are no innate genetic mechanisms that force a person to do morally good things. True, there are the innate empathic feelings, but these feelings are weak and depend on circumstances (e.g., whether we like or dislike the other person). The only force that can make us do morally right things is a supernatural observer who is watching us from Wonderland and demands that we follow the Golden Rule. In modern monotheistic religions, the holder of morality is god. Although consciously we may consider themselves atheists, subconsciously we may still believe in that god exists.

The New Testament says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (Matthew 5:27-28). For believers in god “committing adultery in his heart,” means the choice of the evil, and this choice is punishable. But what about non-believers? It appears that all people who choose the morally good actions have to be believers in god. Of course, they may not realise they are believers, yet they behave as if they believed that there is an observer in Wonderland who is watching their actions, like a CCTV camera of some kind. This “practical belief” can be accompanied by the absence of any conscious belief in god. Some psychological experiments suggest that the proportion of such people is about 20% of the population [24]. I think that people choose the evil only if their subconscious belief in god is too weak to overcome their natural egotism. The evil has many faces - from commonplace disregarding other people's interests to murder - and there are many ways to justify doing evil things. But there is only one way to justify doing good things if doing good things is unprofitable and unobserved by other people -- the belief in the supernatural "enforcer" of the Golden Rule. This becomes especially evident in extreme circumstances, in which all hopes to be rewarded for doing well vanish. In such circumstances the “personal myths” that people create about themselves disappear and the people’s souls strip naked. Russian writer and scientist Dmitry Likhachov, who survived the Leningrad blockade by German Army in 1941-1944, writes “Starvation is incompatible with any reality, with anything we know of life where food is available… I believe that the real life is starvation; any other life is a mirage. During starvation people showed who they really were, their souls striped naked, got free of all the trumpery: Some proved to be wonderful, unparalleled heroes, and the others – villains, dirt bags, murderers, cannibals…everything was genuine. The heavens burst open, and God could be seen in the heavens. He was clearly seen by good people. Miracles were happening” [25, p.369].

According to the Old Testament, paradise was Wonderland. God talked to people, animals could speak human languages, and people were immortal and didn’t know the evil. Expelled from paradise, the people were thrown into the world of “laws of nature”: They had to plough, sow, shepherd cattle and “eat bread in the sweat of their brows”. And they met the evil. The evil told a person “You are a master of this world. Other people are nothing but feeble copies of yourself on the screen of your mind. Do always as you please if the circumstances are right”. And only those who retained their memory of Wonderland were able to withstand the evils’ charm. Without modern people’s explicit or implicit belief in god, universal morality is nothing but an abstract theory or a self-serving illusion at best.

The magic of the brain

The title of a recent book by a prominent Russian physiologist Natalia Bekhtereva “The magic of the brain and the labyrinths of life” [26] reflects the popular attitude toward the brain as a magical entity, which governs a human person. Of course, calling the brain’s work “magical” is only a metaphor; scientists don’t allow for any magic to enter the work of the brain. But a person’s life is more than the person’s profession. It is not a coincidence that British biologist and science writer Richard Dowkins called his book about achievements of science “The magic of reality: How we know what’s really true” [27]. Somehow, scientists who study the brain are not indifferent to magic. It appears that something that we usually call natural suddenly becomes supernatural, just as we slightly change our angle of view. For example, a complex biological computer – the brain – all over sudden and due to unknown causes becomes illuminated by the light of subjective experience – by consciousness, sensations and desires, which are entities that belong to Wonderland [see 28].

Indeed, why doesn’t a person feel pain when he or she is under general anaesthetics? The mechanism that turns a distortion in the body into the feeling of pain is switched off. In other words, the link of the body with Wonderland is temporarily suspended. Indeed, the subjective experience of sensation is unexplainable in terms of physics and physiology. Usually we are unaware of this because the “magic of sensation” is such a commonplace event. Of course, one can declare subjective experiences – pain, love, attention, free will, creative insight – to be mere illusions, as American philosopher Daniel Dennett did in his book “Consciousness explained” [29]. In such theorists’ view the brain is nothing but a complex machine. But here some problems arise. First, it is not clear why the brain needs the illusion of subjective experiences at all. If sensations such as pain and pleasure are useless, then why are they there? And if they are useful they are no illusions. Second, it is not clear how the authors of the “brain machine” theory can even understand the term “subjective experiences”. Because their own brains have to be machines as well, and a machine cannot invent the idea of subjective experiences. It appears that the authors of the “brain-machine” theory make an exception for brains of their own and view their brains as a holder of something non-mechanical and immaterial, something what we call subjective experience. In reality the authors are looking at their own brains from Wonderland. Viewing our own brain from Wonderland is a very comfortable position, since our brain is in front us in full view as a phenomenon and allows all sorts of studies to be done with it. But then we have to acknowledge that Wonderland is not a fiction but a fact.

Some scientists go all the way through from initially denying the reality of Wonderland to acknowledging in the end that Wonderland really exists. For example, neurobiologists Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause consider the magical world as an illusion, which is useful for human survival: God cannot exist as a concept or as a reality any place else but in your mind ” – they write [29, p.62]. This point of view suggests that the brain produces the concept of god like the liver produces bile. The authors even found the area in the brain that is responsible for the altered states of consciousness known as “mystical experiences”. However, in the end of their investigation the authors had to acknowledge than the higher reality described by mystics exists independently of the brain and is even more important than physical reality. The evolution of their views brought the authors to the conclusion that the brain does not create Wonderland; rather the brain is like an eye capable of perceiving the reality of Wonderland. In the aforementioned book Natalia Bekhtereva too writes about Wonderland – the enigmatic psychic phenomena, such as clairvoyance and prophetic dreams.

So, why do some physiologists and biologists use the term “magic” when they describe the brain’s work? Do they do this in order to metaphorically express the complexity of the brain and the fact that our knowledge of the brain is limited? Or perhaps, they do this to acknowledge that the brain is not only the “seat of consciousness”, but also the organ that links us to Wonderland.

Rapa Nui: Conclusion

I started this paper with the questions: Why do rational people like to play with magical reality? What psychological consequences can this fascination with magical reality bring about?

Historically, people used various ways of accessing Wonderland. In the ancient times and in the Middle Ages religion, witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy provided such access. In the time of Renaissance art - paintings, poetry and literature - joined the club. In the XIX century there appeared spiritualist movement, in the XX century – parapsychology. Cinema and TV opened new opportunities for visual representation of Wonderland, in the form of such masterpieces as films by Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock or, more recently, the “Lord of the Rings”, “Narnia” and “Harry Potter” series. Finally, in the end of the XX and the beginning of the XXI centuries there appeared interactive forms of visual representation of Wonderland - computer games and the Internet. Electronic gadgets (notebooks, androids and iPhones) brought Wonderland into a family and a children’s room. Excursions into Wonderland became routine and easily affordable.

Simultaneously with the growing accessibility of Wonderland another process was going on: The fading of traditional religious feelings in modern urban population. In the previous centuries the belief in god connected people with the supernatural world. In the modern industrial world people began to increasingly pay attention to the material side of life. Technology, medicine and education made the life of a modern western individual more safe and comfortable, but they didn’t make the individual free of worries, frustrations, illnesses and death. Technical progress did not teach us what to do in situations of moral choices. It did not answer the question of what meaning our lives have beyond simple perpetuation of existence. But most important, science and technology did not change the essence of a human being – the need for a person to feel that he or she came to this world for something more valuable than mere survival. Existential vacuum developed in the heart of a modern person. When a person is healthy, not hungry and has a shelter, the person begins to feel bored. And there appeared the urge to peep into Wonderland. Some people still seek Wonderland in the church, but the number of such people is plummeting. And what do those people have to do who lost their belief in god or never acquired this belief in the first place?

The simplest way to get in touch with Wonderland is using hallucinogenic substances, from alcohol to cocaine, but this is a damaging and dangerous way. It is much better to go to a nice concert, read a good book or let oneself be carried away by a daydream, but for this one needs education and powerful imagination - the skills of understanding music, pondering over a book and the ability to dream. A more accessible way is to “buy a dream”, by plunging into the virtual reality of a cinema or a computer game. By identifying themselves with movie characters, people can experience the illusion of their own value and power. By plunging into Wonderland, we temporarily get out of monotonous predictability of everyday life. In this way magical thinking fills the existential vacuum that torments many people today. Entertainment and computer industries exploit the need of modern people in accessible ways of getting in touch with magical reality by filling the market with movies and electronic games. There exists also a more positive trend in exploiting people’s magical thinking -- using magical thinking for psychotherapy and the development of imagination [31]. Yet, as recent studies in psychology have shown, the penetration of Wonderland in the life of modern people goes beyond magical thinking alone.

Experiments have revealed that in modern educated adults the belief in the supernatural did not cease to exist. Under the pressure of science, this belief descended into the subconscious. Nevertheless, like the roots of an “inverted tree” that grow upwards from the underground, the belief in magic permeates various domains of our modern life: Economics, medicine, morality, art, politics, education, and theories of modern physics and astronomy [32][33][34][35]. This hidden belief in the supernatural can explain phenomena of modern life, which without such belief remain unexplained. Why do rational people, when they are faced with choices in economics, often follow the laws of magic rather than common logic? What makes modern educated individuals follow political ideas that contradict the individuals’ conscious interests? Why does the placebo effect exist? Where from do suicidal terrorists take their courage to commit actions of self-destruction? How is it possible that some people make moral choices and sacrifice their private interests even when there is no surveillance? Why do some scientists call the work of the brain magical? How is it possible that the whole universe once had the volume smaller than a grain of sand?

Excursions into Wonderland are not for entertainment only; we need them to fill the existential gap in our souls. Our tendency to engage with the supernatural, sometimes at a great cost, reminded me of Rapa Nui people who live on Easter Island lost in the vastness of the Pacific. The history of this people is sometimes quoted as an example of a wasteful attitude of the inhabitants to their natural resources. For the sake of transportation and erection of giant stone statues called Moai the inhabitants completely destroyed the island’s luxurious palm grows; without the building material for rafts and canoes the islanders were unable to fish and their culture fell into decay.

This may be true, but what would this small island be without its Moai statues? It would remain an insignificant little island, one of thousands of such islands scattered around the ocean. Rapa Nui people would be nothing to say about except that this people is an ethnic group that speak Polynesian language. The whole greatness of Rapa Nui people is in the fact that these people did not simply believe in their gods, but made a creative effort by building the giant statues that impersonated their gods. For physical survival of the people this creative effort was meaningless and self destructive but its cultural significance was immense. The creators of Moai can only be compared with the anonymous artists of the Upper Palaeolithic who covered their caves with magnificent paintings of animals and people, and with the builders of Gothic cathedrals.

Perhaps, all that we call the great achievements of culture is exactly that -- a self-destructive super-effort, which people make against the voices of reason and the instinct of self-preservation, for the unstoppable urge to get in touch with Wonderland. Rapa Nui people were unfortunate since they lacked external sources of restoring the damage caused to their environment by their artistic effort. Modern descendants of this people live a very ordinary life and don’t resemble their famous ancestors in any way, but nations of the West stepped on the way of Rapa Nui ancestors. Today billions of dollars are spent on construction of machines, which accelerate elementary particles of matter to the speed of light but don’t have any utilitarian value. The same can be said about giant telescopes that can see the remote edges of the visible universe. A final product of these supercolliders and mega-telescopes is the real Wonderland – the series of concepts that disturbs the otherwise consistent and unified temple of modern science. These concepts include the Big Bang, quantum nonlocality, parallel universes and other miracles of modern theoretical physics.

Magic is incomprehensible, potentially dangerous, rejected by science and religion, yet it remains irresistibly attractive to people. Experiments have shown that if a person is given a choice of seeing either “real magic” or a new and exciting scientific effect, most people (children and adults alike) choose “real magic” [36]. For children such a choice is understandable, but why do most adults go for it? Could it not be because on the bottom of the heart every person still harbours the belief in that the world of the supernatural is not a dream but reality? Against all odds – theories of science, efforts of school education and testimony of everyday experience – modern people still believe in miracles. Because if Wonderland is real – this might be something. Perhaps, this can even make us immortal.

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