Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic

E D WA R D B E V E R SUNY College at Old Westbury

The idea that apparently supernatural phenomena are at least as much a manifestation of the workings of the human mind as of effects that actually occur in the physical world goes back as far as skeptical philosophers of Classical antiquity, who asserted that magicians worked through a combination of fraud, illusion, and natural processes.1 This disparagement of magic as illusion was taken up by late Roman and early Medieval Christians, who used it to call into question the claims of pagan priests and popular practitioners to supernatural power. The position informed the influential tenth-century canon Episcopi, which insisted that women who thought they rode through the air with the goddess Diana were victims of diabolical illusions.2 The Episcopi’s position was incorporated into subsequent ecclesiastical law codes and interpreted broadly as holding that magic in general is illusory, an orthodoxy that dominated Church thinking until the formulation of the witch demonology in the late Middle Ages. Of course, Medieval Christians believed that some supernatural effects were real, because God was capable of contravening the laws of nature, and he could allow lesser beings like saints and the Devil to do so as well when it suited his purposes. Modern dogmatic skepticism, the conviction that supernatural phenomena are inherently impossible and therefore all magic must be illusory—that, in fact, the very belief in the possibility of supernatural phenomena is delusional—originated in the Renaissance in opposition to the emergence of the witch demonology and the beginnings of the trials.3 Skep1. Edward Bever, ‘‘Magic and Religion,’’ in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition (hereafter EW), vol. 3, ed. Richard Golden (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2006), 693. 2. Edward Peters, ‘‘Canon Episcopi,’’ in EW, vol. 1, 165–66. 3. Edward Bever, ‘‘Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic,’’ The Journal of Interdisciplinary History XL, no. 2 (2009): 266–68.
Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (Summer 2012) Copyright ᭧ 2012 University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.

However. Bever.’’ in EW. ‘‘Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic. Evans-Pritchard and Le ´ vi-Strauss. vol.7 Durkheim’s triumph came at the expense of Le ´ vy-Bruhl. 8.6 The new discipline of psychology pathologized individual belief in magic. 696. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 tics raised questions about the ability of incorporeal spirits to cause physical effects and speculated about the physical processes that might instead be responsible for them. Ibid.. who argued that ‘‘natives’’ believe in magic because they think differently from rational modern Westerners. Similarly. while scholars in a variety of fields advanced competing theories to explain magical thinking’s long hold on human consciousness.’’ 270–83. but most came to follow Durkheim’s dictum that social phenomena should be explained in terms of other social phenomena and not individual consciousness.4 These ideas gained general currency within the European elite after its seventeenth-century ‘‘crisis of confidence’’ in the witchcraft demonology. . 696–97. if not always and inevitably then at least some of the time and in certain circumstances. Ritual. even as semiotics gained ascendancy in anthropology as well as history during the last generation. 5. both turned to the inner workings of the mind in recognition of the limitations of their primary approaches. 6. a new interpretive 4. 291–92. Bever. 7. In the nineteenth century. the leading exponents of the two main traditions that followed from Durkheim. scientific controversies about the reality of magic increasingly gave way to social-scientific explanations of magical beliefs. the social structuralfunctionalist school and the symbolist/structuralist tradition. Ibid.8 Evans-Pritchard supplemented his focus on the relationship between social structures and magical beliefs with references to ‘‘natives’ ’’ use of two modes of thinking.’’ 695. and eventually at all—were complemented by ridicule of magical beliefs as irrational.5 During the Enlightenment. earnest arguments against the possibility of supernatural phenomena—initially in the present era. ‘‘Skepticism.. Matteo Duni. while Le ´ vi-Strauss related the systems of symbols he discerned in cultures to unconscious structures of the human mind. ‘‘Magic and Religion. and so deemphasized psychological issues in favor of social and cultural approaches. while some physicians hypothesized that people who believed that they met with spirits who helped them perform dark magic were suffering from a disease. the mystical and the empirical. 1045–46. although on a much broader scale. The earliest explanations focused on the evolution of human cognition as a series of stages linked to the development of material civilization.4 Magic. 4.

html. 44–45. 6–7. . and the general consensus.’’ a big. empty storage space attached to a general purpose information processor. 1997). 11. UK: Berg. and neuroscience. The reason is that since the Enlightenment. other cognitive scientists broadened the idea that our minds consist in part of hard-wired specialized subsystems. what the evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides have labeled the ‘‘Standard Social-Scientific Model’’ (or ‘‘SSSM’’).edu/research/cep/primer. 10. and Freudian psychology suggested that some of the inchoate urges that constitute the Id manifest instinctive drives. from understanding basic physical causality through belief. Freud put more emphasis on common infantile experiences. 2001). Bradd Shore. 9.ucsb. ed. it started with Noam Chomsky’s observation that the ability to learn language appears to be ‘‘hard-wired’’ into the human brain. are ‘‘hard-wired’’ in. or disbelief. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. growing out of what anthropologist Bradd Shore has termed ‘‘the other great intellectual movement of the late twentieth century—the revolution in cognitive science. .10 Naturally. ‘‘Introduction. Culture. computer science. Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 5 perspective appeared. In The Modularity of Mind (1983) Jerry Fodor extended the concept to ‘‘genetically specified perceptual . Culture in Mind: Cognition.’’ in The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology vs.’’ The term ‘‘revolution’’ tends to be overused by historians. . systems .11 The ‘‘cognitive revolution’’ has changed all this. as its origins suggest. shape. In outline. and beliefs its environment puts into it. 11. How the Mind Works (New York: Norton. . linguistics. 12.’’9 This perspective.psych. assumed the mind could do and contain pretty much whatever it was programmed to after birth.’’ http://www. . it was understood that basic metabolic functions like causing the lungs to breath and keeping the heart beating. along with basic perceptual and cognitive capacities like the ability to taste and the capacity to make associations. Steven Pinker. educated opinion has accepted Locke’s understanding of the newborn human mind as a ‘‘blank slate. Whitehouse. but in the case of the ‘‘cognitive revolution’’ it seems thoroughly warranted. 1996). but with a specific portion of our brain dedicated to mastering and retaining one. and the Problem of Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press. ‘‘Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. philosophy.12 As various lines of research have confirmed that we do indeed come equipped not only with a specialized capacity to learn a language. is rooted in the new understanding of the workings of the human mind resulting from recent advances in ‘‘cognitive psychology. for analysis of spatial relations. ready to be filled up with whatever set of understandings. Ethnography. However. in God. attitudes.

14. innately specified.13 While in Fodor’s model mental modules are peripheral to the cognitive system. . evolutionary psychologists have developed increasingly sophisticated. our ‘‘cognitive modules’’ or ‘‘intuitive ontological principals’’ give us a head start on the learning process that Enlightenment tradition has assumed started each generation from scratch.’’ justifying these by pointing to the adaptive advantage of being born with automatically developing and functioning systems involving perception and response to danger. ed.’’ in Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief. and innate psychology. ‘‘Mental Modularity and Cultural Diversity.15 We appear to have. an innate physics. thoughts. intuitive ontological principals’’ that predispose us to understand different ontological domains in our environment in specific ways. 13. and Experience. Whitehouse. Ritual. sets of at least partially prewired modules or cognitive systems that equip us to understand the fundamentals of the physical.’’ in The Debated Mind. 2001). capable of counteracting the more irrational inferences delivered by input systems. Over the past generation. 26–27 (note that Sperber is actually quoting Fodor. that mediate our perceptions. For example. Dan Sperber.17 At the same time.’’ 9. Pinker. ‘‘Folkbiology and the Anthropology of Science: Cognitive Universals and Cultural Particulars. Jensine Andresen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pascal Boyer.16 We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every generation. 16. subordinated to ‘‘non-modular. autonomous’’ modules that are ‘‘associated with fixed neural architecture. to set up his own. innate biology. 61–62. 17.’’14 Other cognitive scientists place less emphasis on modularity. postulating that the mind is made up of many ‘‘domain-specific. although still controversial. and systems of brain centers. How the Mind Works. but there is broad agreement that the mind possesses ‘‘genetically specified . 316–33.’’ 7–8. for example. or put another way. . ‘‘Introduction. 36 and 98. much broader employment of the concepts). Whitehouse.’’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (1998). hardwired. and feelings. advances in cognitive theory have gone hand in hand with advances in neurology and have been supported by neuroimaging studies that show with increasing sophistication the brain centers. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 color. ‘‘Introduction. and social environments into which we will be born. ‘‘Cultural Inheritance/Cultural Predispositions’’ in The Debated Mind. memories. Ritual.6 Magic. 15. See also Scott Atran. although there is enough flexibility that the wheel we develop can adapt to the condition of the roads and the kind of loads it will carry. biological. Patrick McNamara. higher-level processes. ‘‘Religion and the Frontal Lobes. and other visual stimuli. .’’ Dan Sperber has advocated a much broader modular theory.

and Witchcraft Accusations. 8.’’ in Soul. eds. Veikko Anttonen. xix–xx. and/or individual pathology. but the most significant recent cognitive work relating to magic has been done by scholars of religion.’’ as the quote from Shore indicates and we shall see below. Va. 4. Sleep Paralysis. Owen Davies. Psyche. and Everyday Life (Baskingstoke.’’ 5–6. misunderstood popular practices. 2002). ‘‘Introduction. UK: Palgrave Macmillan. ‘‘Introduction. 22–26. 10. and Meaning in Early Modern Culture.’’ in Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative. since magic and religion overlap so much. 20. ed. UK: Macmillan. on the current privileging of language and narrative. 21. ‘‘The Nightmare Experience. For example. It is rooted in Sperber’s ‘‘relevance theory of communication’’ and ‘‘epidemiological model of cultural transmission. Kelley Bulkeley. but to some degree they have focused on magic specifically. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture. Ilkka Pyysia ¨ inen. ‘‘Introduction: Religion.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 7 theories explaining in terms of natural selection the reasons that specific cognitive capabilities became hard-wired into our brains. Whitehouse.18 Historians of magic have paid relatively little attention to this fundamental change in our understanding of how the mind works.’’ Folklore 114 (August 2003): 182–203. . Cognition.’’ in Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion. they moved through social-scientific invocations of psychoanalytic concepts like ‘‘projection’’ and ‘‘sublimation’’ to explain how social tensions were redirected into witchcraft accusations to the postmodern position that all historically significant human mental activity can be treated as a form of language. Starting from the traditional ‘‘rationalist’’ and ‘‘romantic’’ views of magic as a manifestation of primitive thought. Edward Bever. ‘‘Indentifying the Generative Mechanisms of Religion. Cognition.’’ in Religion 38 (2008): 102–3. one has emerged in the past ten years as the dominant trend in the field.’’21 What the latter does is explain ‘‘the differential spread of concepts and beliefs’’ in terms of the 18. 2001). While there are several significant interpretive approaches to the cognitive study of religion. Ilkka Pyysiainen and Veikko Anttonen (London: Continuum. 2005). Ideology. 2008). Brain: New Directions in the Study of Religion and Brain-Mind Science (Gordonsville.20 Anthropologists have paid more heed to the ‘‘cognitive revolution.: Palgrave Macmillan.19 The few historical studies of magic that have taken cognitive factors into account have been relatively isolated and ad hoc. and Culture. see Stuart Clark. 19. To some extent this has been an incidental by-product of their broader investigations into religious phenomena. ‘‘Introduction. Stuart Clark (Houndsmill. a disembodied system of signs structured by narrative conventions that effectively constitutes the mind.

23 These maturationally natural cognitive systems give rise to nonreflective beliefs like the appropriateness of the rules of grammar and the necessity of physical contact to transfer movement. to attempt to discern the intent behind the presumed act. Justin Barrett and Jonathan Lanman. and once having inferred agency.’’ by which it means cognitive systems that arise ‘‘through the ordinary functioning of human biological endowment in ordinary human environments. beliefs and behaviors ‘‘are informed and constrained by the natural and cross-culturally recurrent operation of implicit cognitive systems. for which ‘‘a body of evidence has accumulated over the past few decades.’’ provides one rich source of possible intent. 113. 24. ff. or supernatural beings who reward morally good behavior with good fortune and punish bad behavior with misfortune.24 22. which is the ability to understand that when an event happens in the environment. both other animals and other people. because they ‘fit’ the human mind. Ritual. We share with other animals a nonreflective Agency Detection Device.’’ and understanding basic physical processes. It is labeled ‘‘hyperactive’’ in this context because it is designed to err on the side of caution.8 Magic. Our Theory of Mind. . It starts with the concept of ‘‘maturationally natural cognitive systems. some ideas and behaviors are easier to spread to begin with. HADD and ToM give us a propensity to attribute agency to both intentional and random events and processes. Our ‘‘maturationally natural. it may be because a deliberative agent intended for it to happen. 116. Together. the assumption that intent is behind an event. our Theory of Mind (ToM). and in particular to belief in gods. asserting that ‘‘it is not merely blind cultural selection that makes some ideas and behaviors more successful than others. Ibid.. More pertinent to god beliefs.’’ In other words..’’ intuitive sense of morality (ISOM). and Witchcraft Summer 2012 former. Ibid.’’ like ‘‘learning to speak your native language. which we presumably share only with other higher mammals. endows us with the ability to simulate complex thought processes of agents we detect.’’22 Those that mesh most easily with them will spread most widely and be retained most firmly. ‘‘The Science of Religious Beliefs’’ in Religion 38 (2008): 109. and an intuitive sense of morality. because game theory predicts that in a world full of predators and competitors it’s safer to mistakenly assume that something random is purposeful than vice versa. and thereby anticipate and even manipulate their behavior. they also give rise to our (Hyperactive) Agency Detection Device (or HADD). 23. the epidemiological explanation goes as follows. Applied specifically to religious belief.

Jesper Sørenson. it’s because we did something wrong. Why don’t people. 2007).’’ and ‘‘force. when one harms us. ‘‘a stone statue that weeps tears of blood likewise involves the transfer of an inference pertaining to biological systems and applies it to an artifact. so MCI facilitates the propagation and retention of religious beliefs while validating the supernatural agency and causation needed to make the inferences of HADD and ToM plausible. cutting off the process before it gets to ToM or ISOM? The answer involves one key element in the epidemiological process. living kinds.’’ ‘‘object. 115. it’s because we’re being rewarded for having done something commendable. A Cognitive Theory of Magic (Lanham. his central argument is that magical beliefs manifest a particular form of conceptualization that results from the combination at higher levels of mental processing elements belonging to different basic cognitive domains.’’ Similarly. and persons). consider but then reject the results of their hyperactive agency detector. While HADD. 76–77. 26.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 9 When an event or process benefits us. for instance. and beliefs generated by maturationally natural cognitive systems (such as those dealing with physical objects. especially something for which we have not already been punished.26 While Sørenson emphasizes that magic is a complex phenomenon. inferences. . and a ‘‘blended space’’ where elements from the two input spaces are brought 25.: Rowman & Littlefield. This idea of domain violation lies at the heart of the most direct application of this overall approach to magic.’’ especially if connected to moral judgments. or why they are able to affect natural processes to bestow rewards or inflict misfortunes. in other words.’’25 The idea that a tree might have ‘‘beliefs and desires. and ISOM explain why people might imagine that invisible agents are manipulating events for or against them depending on their moral worth.. which ‘‘violate a small number of the expectations.’’ Domain violations such as these have ‘‘been shown to make concepts more memorable. they don’t account for why people accept that such invisible agents exist. he posits a ‘‘generic space’’ containing cognitive primitives like ‘‘agent. Ibid. More specifically. involves a transfer of an intuitive inference from one ontological domain (intuitive psychology) to another domain (living kinds) with which it is not normally associated. Jesper Sørenson’s A Cognitive Theory of Magic.’’ two ‘‘input spaces’’ containing specific instantiations of these primitives in two different conceptual domains. artifacts. Md. ToM. and one that puts the magic back in ‘‘magico-religious’’: what cognitive scientists of religion call ‘‘Minimially Counterintuitive Ideas’’ (or MCI).

Sørensen explains how people can think that magic works. chaps. he explains the Trobriand Islanders’ ritual to exorcize garden blight through a spell that calls on it to paddle away in a canoe as the mixing of elements from the seafaring domain and the garden domain in a blended ritual space. 75. Emma Cohen. he portrays magic as ritual that creates a blended space where elements from the profane and the sacred domains (which themselves are based on common cognitive primitives) mix: bread and wine are profane instantiations of containers containing the essence of bread and wine.. and how come they sometimes seem to be able to foretell the future or actually cure the sick. 60–61. 6 and 7. the Eucharist creates a blended space in which bread and wine are understood to no longer contain their own essences and instead contain the essence of Christ. but also a real under27. Ibid. 30. ToM. Ritual.27 For example. spread.29 By linking magical beliefs to current cognitive theory. what is going on when they converse with spirits. creates an intriguing explanation of how people generate. a peculiar set of misapplications of it—the result is not really a full cognitive theory of magic. 125–27. 83–84. The first step in Cohen’s analysis is to define ‘‘spirits’’ as a concept so that she can then deploy the whole arsenal of HADD. In other words. suggests that this limitation is inherent in the approach. but rather more of a cognitive theory of belief in magic.28 More generally.10 Magic. Ibid. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 together. Emma Cohen’s The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession. This constitutes a major contribution to the sociology of magic. 2007). like the works that it builds on. However. and thus why they engage in the rituals those beliefs engender. and maintain so many beliefs that seem impossible or nonsensical to us. 28.30 What is missed is not only an appreciation of the astounding subjective experience of possession. esp. but instead are just a particular set of instantiations of it—or more precisely. but does not really explain how they come to experience magic: why they see visions. MCI. Christ’s body and blood are sacred instantiations of containers containing the essence of Christ. 98–100. because he does this in a way that quite deliberately involves cognitive mechanisms that are not fundamentally different from ordinary cognition. 29. and so on to explain the spread and retention of possession beliefs. Sørensen’s book. The Mind Possessed: The Cognition of Spirit Possession in an AfroBrazilain Religious Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press. A recent analysis of spirit possession from the cognitive epidemiological perspective.. Ibid. ..

’’ would seem to focus more directly on this aspect of magico-religious phenomena. ‘‘Introduction. Sørenson. the imagistic through occasional inducement of intense. ‘‘The Science of Religious Beliefs. 9. we need to understand how dramatically nonordinary forms of perception and cognition come about. which contributes to their social power. causally oriented rationality of everyday thought has been picked up and developed in turn by two recent scholars of magic. Functions. 2009). and the difficulty of generalizing and communicating them. 32. Harvey Whitehouse.: AltaMira Press. Pyysia ¨ inen. . A Cognitive Theory of Magic. Another prominent cognitive theory of religion. which inhibits it.32 Another cognitive theory that more directly addresses the problem of magical thinking and experience is Le ´ vy-Bruhl’s concept of ‘‘participation.33 His elaboration of the idea that participation involves a different. Modes of Religiousity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Walnut Creek. Harvey Whitehouse’s ‘‘theory of ‘two modes of religiosity. like its dominant rival. Whitehouse does consider the ‘‘especially rich patterns of analogical thinking’’ that are triggered by intense ritual experiences. 21–22.’ the imagistic and the doctrinal. 2010). The focus of his concern about the two modes is their ability to spread the faith—the doctrinal through frequent repetition of low-arousal stimuli like linguistic formulas. the anthropologist Susan Greenwood and the developmental psychologist Eugene Subbotsky. and intensely memorable.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 11 standing of how that subjective experience comes about. 34. and Development of Magical Thinking and Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press.’’ which was adopted by Stanley Tambiah in connection with his emphasis on the performative dimension of magico-religious ritual.’’ 102–103. 98. Concepts about spirits may inform the perceived characteristics and behaviors of spirits. and associative form of knowledge than the analytical. Susan Greenwood. but they cannot explain the experience of encountering or being taken over by one. holistic.’’ 119. 2004).34 Subbotsky has been conducting a long series of experiments over the past thirty years that demonstrate that magical beliefs are a ubiquitous feature of 31.31 However. it is more concerned with the issue of the propagation and retention of belief systems in populations than the experience of spiritual or magical encounters by individuals. Barrett and Lanman.11. 33. but his emphasis is on the trade-off between their memorability and emotional resonance. sensory and emotional experiences—and the way that the power of the latter gives rise to popular practices at odds with the former. Eugene Subbotsky. To explain this. The Anthropology of Magic (Oxford. UK: Berg. Magic and the Mind: Mechanisms. Calif.

but also by grown up modern Westerners. Subbotsky’s definition of participation points back to the mainstream cognitive tradition. Greenwood. see Maurice Bloch. For a critique of the notion that magico-religious beliefs are counter-intuitive. by which we apprehend magical reality. However. in Subbotsky’s reckoning. his insistence that the existence of the magical cognitive domain reflects the existence of a magical dimension of human reality contrasts strongly with the mainstream tradition’s assumption that the ontological categories and categorizations accepted by modern Western adults are both valid and intuitive. and the task of cognitive theory is therefore to explain how children and other primitive peoples come to adopt invalid.37 Subbotsky argues to the contrary that both the ubiquity and the utility of magical thinking indicate that it is just as intuitive and valid. is that the mind is naturally divided into two domains.36 Participation is ‘‘the tendency to merge entities that from a rational point of view should be treated as separate’’ based on ‘‘holistic thinking’’ in which the ‘‘essences’’ of physically or logically separate entities are ‘‘shared or blended.35 The explanation. 26. and that it is the ‘‘key to understanding magic. counterintuitive ideas about how the world works. They are manifested not only by children and uneducated non-Western adults.12 Magic. 37. ed. which exist in a symbiotic relationship. ordinary reality and magical reality. N. for it is really not that different from Sørenson’s concept of a blended conceptual space mixing elements from the sacred and profane domains. who exhibit superstitious reactions and engage in ritualistic behaviors if the stakes are high and/or the costs of appearing credulous are low. Magic and the Mind. Subbotsky.: Cambridge University Press. 139. She agrees with him that participation involves a mode of cognition that is a ubiquitous feature of human mental life. 4–5. 146. . 39. Nancy Frankenberry (Port Chester. what really needs explaining is why modern Western adults work so hard to suppress it. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 human cognition.38 In contrast to Subbotsky’s employment of the concept of participation to explain the results of his etic investigations of magical beliefs. that it connects in important ways to human reality. 98–100.. esp.’’ but her discussion leads in a rather different direction. Greenwood discusses it in connection to her emic investigations of magic as practice and experience. 166. Subbotsky asserts. 134–35. Ritual. 133. and indeed. The Anthropology of Magic. Magic and the Mind. in its domain. Ibid. 144. Subbotsky.Y.39 Whereas 35. as mundane processing.’’ It is the mechanism. ‘‘Are Religious Beliefs Counter-Intuitive?’’ in Radical Interpretation of Religion. 38. 2002). 36. even as they explicitly deny their validity. 115–31.

29. but it is ultimately descriptive rather than explanatory.’’42 She draws on Gregory Bateson’s concept of ‘‘abduction.. more straightforward approach to the experience of magic—encounters with supernatural agents. in an attempt to outline a system of knowledge separate from but equal to science. 42. and the trophotropic. there is another.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 13 Subbotsky.. or beliefs about how the world works—Greenwood focuses on ‘‘mystical mentality’’ or ‘‘magical consciousness. ideas. 3455–3502. which is to go beyond cognitive theory to cognitive neuroscience. . Ibid. The Anthropology of Magic. This is actually true of the concept of participation itself: it provides a handy label for the bundle of mental processes magical thinking involves. 11. Greenwood asserts that it is this ‘‘shift in consciousness’’ or ‘‘change in awareness’’ that constitutes participation and yields the perception of ‘‘connections between things. Greenwood. 7–9. This approach started with the basic neurological work of Ernst Gellhorn. 29. 43. and feeling’’ that distinguishes magical understanding and shapes its practices.’’ an ‘‘associative experience’’ resulting from ‘‘a form of mental processing’’ in which ‘‘bodily boundaries and distinct notions of self are temporarily abandoned’’ and ‘‘imaginal experience’’ comes to the fore. like the dominant cognitive tradition. Greenwood explicitly asserts that the ‘‘emotional and imaginative experiences associated with’’ magic ‘‘cannot be understood purely by studying them by conventional scientific methods of analysis’’ since these are ‘‘bound within rationalistic discourses’’ that either ‘‘reduce the experience of magic to external terms’’ or ‘‘obliterate its essence.’’ which centers on the recognition of patterns and their embodiment in metaphor. Ibid. 31. treats magical beliefs as conscious or unconscious concepts—thoughts.40 Speaking from her own experiences as a participant-observer in magical practices. but it doesn’t really explain how they work. 6–7.. as well as from informants’ reports and published accounts. Ibid. Kindle Edition position 3353–3365. 41. and employment of magical powers—that does help explain it.41 Greenwood’s discussion provides important insights into the experiences associated with magical thinking. journeys to magical realms. Indeed.43 Fortunately. altering the balance between the ergotropic. or arousal. who first proposed the concept of ‘‘tuning’’ the nervous system. 4. situations. 6–7. another descriptive cul-de-sac that essentially repackages the cognitive attributes of magical thinking under a new label. or relaxation. but in the end this seems to lead back to the same place. sys40.

biogeneticstructuralism. . the synchronization of ‘‘the different levels of the brain and the frontal lobes’’ leading to the integration of ‘‘information from the lower levels of the brain.’’ this in turn yields intuitive insight. Charles Laughlin. . 45. ‘‘The Neurobiology of Ritual Trance.44 The approach really got under way. and finally.45 Lex discussed how either intense overstimulation drives the ergotropic system or profound understimulation drives the trophotropic system into a state of overload. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 tems to produce qualitatively different psychological experiences and cognitive capabilities. Eugen d’Aquili and Charles Laughlin (New York: Columbia University Press. Ritual. resulting in the strong intrusion of internally generated. 202–204.htm. when Eugene d’Aquili and Charles Laughlin.14 Magic. and personal integration’’ and deactivation of the orientation association area of the brain to create a disembodied sensation that can be manifested as an out-of-body experience. It also produces the synthesis of beta-endorphin and a consequent sense of wellbeing. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic. 46.’’ including nonverbal emotional and behavioral information.46 These include shifts in the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Plus Ergotropic— Trophotropic Tuning. . and neuroscience called ‘‘biogenetic structuralism. D’Aquili and Laughlin focused more on the implications of Lex’s work for community-enhancing religious rituals than for individual consciousness. . leading to the activation of the complementary system while the overloaded one is still engaged. radically heightened bioelectric activity associated with learning and the generation of new insights and heightened creativity.’’ http://www. . ‘‘into the processing capacity of the frontal cortex. or a feeling of oceanic oneness with the universe. the intrusion of some external presence into the body. accelerated heart rate and reduced blood pressure in an unusual combination ‘‘known otherwise only from life-threatening situations .’’ got anthropologist Barbara Lex to apply Gellhorn’s ideas to the problem of ritual trance. the founders of an interdisciplinary approach to culture integrating anthropology.’’ in The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structuralist Analysis. The result is a hybrid physiological state and state of consciousness characterized by some features of sleeping and some features of waking. Barbara Lex. psychology. note that this discussion amalgamates Lex’s original contribution with later work by other researchers. when a person is close to death from an infectious disease or bleeding’’ (which may be why ritual practices are often thought to involve contact with the dead or journeys to the land of the dead). ‘‘understanding . but the anthropologist Michael Winkelman has made it the central focus of his 44. 1979).com/tuttune. eds. Bever. dreamlike imagery on consciousness. ‘‘Day Eight: A Review of Past Material. though.

Charles Laughlin. It can promote healing indirectly by facilitating the shaman’s own trance-based healing activities. which. it discusses how a woman’s incantation of a spell ‘‘so that no forest ranger could see or catch her’’ when she snuck into restricted forestland could have actually helped her remain undetected. extends the idea of ‘‘tuning the nervous system’’ to include subtler changes in consciousness induced by what it calls ‘‘fine-tuning’’ the nervous system via more subdued ritual activities. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic. resolve intrapsychic tensions responsible for psychophysical ailments. John McManus. in particular divination and healing. Michael Winkelman.. Ibid. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing (Westport. 50. 193–95. Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press. Conn. ‘‘Introduction. 51. Winkelman.’ ’’ yielding ‘‘intuitive insight and ‘understanding. 162–63. and so on—but the roots of the latter require more elaboration. Wu ¨ rttemberg Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart (WHS). relieving pain and creating a sense of well-being.’’ The Spectrum of Ritual. . and Eugene d’Aquili. and London: Bergin and Garvey. Bever. 48. 199–200. which inhibit recuperation. as well as mobilizing the placebo effect. 211. and their magical powers. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe. Tuning the nervous system would seem to facilitate divination by integrating ‘‘ ‘information from the lower levels of the brain’ including nonverbal emotional and behavioral information ‘into the processing capacity of the frontal cortex. can trigger endorphin release in the patient. like soul flight and spirit encounters. Initial Report.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 15 work on shamanism.49 Tuning can have a direct effect if the shaman induces a trance in the patient. 173. 2004). and end in a trophotropic-dominated state with the restorative systems tuned up and the stress-related ones. 29–35.50 To give one example.’’ in Divination and Healing. file 767. feelings of disembodiment. While Winkelman concentrates on the effects of full-blown shamanic trance in his work. the present author’s recent historical study of magic. facilitate hypnotic and auto-hypnotic susceptibility to positive suggestions. which can trigger endorphin release as well.. with words calling 47. 11. Shamanism. along with sleight-of-hand and other tricks.51 While the spell was formally a transitive one. 49. 2000).47 Winkelman relates it to both the magical experiences of shamans. The physiological roots of the former are obvious from the list of effects ‘‘tuning’’ has on the nervous system— dreamlike imagery.’ ’’48 Winkelman argues that shamanic trance can promote healing both indirectly and directly. eds. Archive A209 (Oberrat: Kriminalakten). like narrating a flight to the spirit world to rescue the sick person’s soul. Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek. tuned down. ‘‘Introduction: Divination and Healing Processes.

Joost A. but the objective reality and specific impact were not what mattered. God. document 3. and Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai. ‘‘Operant Control of the EEG Alpha Rhythm and Some of Its Reported Effects on Consciousness. Ritual.’’ its potential for keeping the woman from being detected would have hinged on its direct effects on her and only indirectly influenced him. if incanted quietly or silently while hiding. The effective agent was the woman channeling the 52. A209. Winkelman. 54. . ed.16 Magic. incanting a spell. Intuition and the Evil Eye (Wassenaar. Charles Tart (New York: Wiley. Finally. . Man. 56. the woman would not have objectively become impossible to detect and a forester was unlikely to have been suddenly afflicted by the maladies she invoked. 15.55 Spells like this can thus be thought of as a form of ‘‘psycholinguistic programming’’ that entrain cognitive and emotional neural networks in ways that can ‘‘provoke profound physiological changes. and Magic. what was important was that the person involved was not noticed at a particular time by a particular person. 1971). ‘‘An Electroencephalographic Study on the Zen Meditation (Zazen). the greatest danger was overactivity.’’ ibid. 509–510. Ivor Lissner. Joe Kamiya. 146. 1969). [or] blind.’’ ibid. Meerloo. M. would reassure her both intellectually and emotionally that she would not be caught. 500–501. Maxwell Brownjohn (New York: Putnam. . even if they are in its field of vision they may still escape notice.’’ to ‘‘disappear’’ or to be led away by ‘‘the Devil.’’56 Of course. stillness is often the best camouflage. First of all. the cadence of the words would have produced a physiologically calming effect. whether beforehand or quietly at the time. 245. 55. and experimental studies have demonstrated that even purely mental activities can produce states of greater relaxation. 767. trans. WHS. Shamanism.53 For a poacher trying to avoid forest rangers. distraction is another important component of magic. 72. 1961). ‘‘intensifying self-confidence’’ is one way that magic ‘‘can actually influence reality. . and an incantation could help avoid this in several ways. while flight virtually guarantees pursuit. 53. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 for any threatening ranger to ‘‘become bent . 485. which is why small animals freeze when they become aware of a predator nearby. reminding herself of or reciting the spell would give her something to do with her mind instead of anxiously miscalculating her chances of escape. Netherlands: Sevire.. for oral recitation imposes control over breathing.’’ in Altered States of Consciousness. . lame .. so if a ranger was nearby there would be no apparent need and less impulse to run.52 In mottled light and tangled undergrowth.’’54 Second. Charles Tart. ‘‘The Psychophysiology of Some Altered States of Consciousness.

Furthermore. It further defines ‘‘shamanism’’ as the manipulation of the mind in the practitioner and others via ‘‘tuning’’ or ‘‘fine-tuning’’ the nervous system to produce alterations of consciousness that give access to knowledge and manifest powers that are not accessible in normal waking consciousness. but indeed in the necessary absence of his awareness that it was being cast at all. the early modern poacher could affect the patrolling ranger’s perceptions not just regardless of his belief in the power of the spell. it is not an ordinary cultural tradition dependent on ongoing continuity of beliefs manifested through a set of customs. The justification for this definition of shamanism is that while the term is derived from the activities of certain magical practitioners in certain central Asian societies. except when restricted to the narrowest definition. this last point highlights the fact that in this case the beliefs of the target were entirely irrelevant. The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic. It is a commonplace that magic can have real effects on a person who believes in it. Bever. but it is less widely appreciated that it can have effects on people regardless of their beliefs. as some anthropologists advocate. .57 Whether it is restricted to the spiritual practices of Siberian healers. By controlling her own thoughts and behaviors. 436. The Realities classifies the less profound yet potent alterations of consciousness induced by ‘‘fine-tuning’’ the nervous system as ‘‘shamanistic’’ to distinguish them from the dramatic trance states produced by full-blown ‘‘shamanic’’ tuning. 435. or practices that induce contact with spirits whether or not an imaginal journey is involved—it is an artificial construct created by Western intellectuals. used to describe any alterations of consciousness that yield inspired insights that are conveyed to others. or given any of several possible intermediate meanings—practices that induce the experience of a journey to the spirit world. they were in other ways independent of it (the physiologically calming effects of oral or mental recitation and the predisposition of predators to attend more to perceptions of movement than stillness). Furthermore. 58. shamanism does not exist as a cohesive set of beliefs and practices characteristic of any particular culture. it is an amorphous phenomenon that has been discovered 57. while the effects of the spell on the person who recited it were in some ways dependent on belief (the intellectual and emotional reassurance it gave). as it is sometimes popularly employed. 194. and is commonly used to label healers in tribal societies who enter an ecstatic trance as part of their practice. Ibid..58 Instead. In the example here.Bever Current Trends in the Application of Cognitive Science to Magic 17 activities of her own nervous system in order to influence her own behavior and thereby affect the perceptions of others. an etic category rather than an emic one.

59. with their preconceptions about the invalidity of magical beliefs. ed. Additionally. the neurocognitive approach not only offers insight into the physiological causes of the cognitive effects associated with participation.60 In conclusion. The first of these recent applications of cognitive science to magic thus illuminates a major issue in the sociology and history of magic as well as religion. Instead. relating them to the innate structures and ordinary processes of the mind. The Anthropology of Magic. while relating both to the neurophysiology of ‘‘tuning’’ and ‘‘fine-tuning’’ the nervous system. and Witchcraft Summer 2012 and developed by disparate and unconnected cultures around the world at different times. Greenwood. it seems clear that the ‘‘cognitive revolution’’ has significant implications for our understanding of magic. between the psychological process of altering consciousness and the cultural practices of magic. Second. also noted by Greenwood. in Winkelman’s words. Ritual. Le ´ vyBruhl’s concept of participation has been adopted by a developmental psychological as well as an experiential anthropological investigator of magic because it seems to encapsulate the cognitive processing that distinguishes magical from mundane thinking that their very different investigative projects have revealed. and certain ecological conditions and social demands. while the latter two remind us that in trying to understand magic it is not enough to explain what seems invalid and counterintuitive to us. They thereby promise to yield important new insights into magic’s long and resolute hold on the human psyche that traditional scholarly interpretations. ‘‘Altered States of Consciousness. the cognitive approach developed by scholars of religion sheds new light on the propagation and retention of magical beliefs as well as religious ones. First of all. but also indicates how practitioners can exert real power over themselves and others.’’59 Defining shamanism in cognitive rather than the anthropological terms focuses our attention on the commonalities linking the wide variety of ways human beings deliberately manipulate their nervous systems to alter their consciousness to access normally unconscious knowledge and skills.’’ in Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. . 60. Finally. 1997). a range of ‘‘cultural adaptations to the biological potentials of altered states of consciousness .: Greenwood. Stephen. 31. Glazier (Westport. It is. they suggest a new.18 Magic. using the term in this way highlights the connection. ‘‘realist’’ approach that focuses on the ways in which magical beliefs and practices reference and influence reality. Michael Winkelman. . can never provide. while distinguishing shamanistic from shamanic practices gives us a vocabulary that acknowledges the different degrees and impacts of such manipulations. Conn. . 403.

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