Psych-Out :: by michael joseph lmsw


Empty pockets

August 6th, 2013

Sometimes we get a good reading on ourselves — on how culture or the circumstances of our individual lives leave their mark, often outside of our awareness – simply by changing up something small that breaks us off from some routine comfort.

With two hours to kill in the middle of my work day, I decided to empty my pockets and go out into the world.  When I say empty, I mean empty.  No cell phone.  No Ipod.   No money, wallet, nor credit cards. I even decided to leave the door to my office unlocked so I wouldn’t be burdened by keys.  I would travel light.   I fancied myself the footloose fool on his merry way.

Leave your own house or office with empty pockets.  Walk downtown around lunchtime where the smells of food and the glitz of so many storefronts tempt you in.  Would you, too, be as immediately riddled with anxiety?  What if I get hungry?  What if I miss that call, or text?  What if I see something that I want to buy?  The tethers of modern life bind us with comfort and security.  Our bodies can go into a panic when familiarity is pulled out from under us.  But the security is more psychological, than real.  We panic when there’s nothing really to panic about.

Would I starve to death if I wouldn’t eat for two hours?  What if I grew thirsty?  Would my social or professional life cave in, if I was completely out of touch?  Suppose someone breaks into my office!  Is there anything I really need to buy?  After several blocks my anxieties started to dissolve.  A reflective sensibility started to take hold.

The smells of downtown struck with more intensity.  My scan was wider and seemed to take in much more of the town.  With no earphones plugging  my ears, my sense of hearing was taken over by the sounds of cars, buses, and people chattering .  Music?  Yes.  I heard street musicians, people chattering, horns honking.  The world around me had come to life.

After about 20 minutes, the pangs of anxiety and panic gave way to a sense of freedom and something in my mind seemed to open up into itself.  I thought of poems long forgotten.  Songs drifted in and out of my thoughts.  I could easily grab the low hanging fruit of ideas, dreams, and memories.  I lingered on thoughts about certain friends without the pressure of a sudden flurry of texts.  I felt as if I were holding them in my thoughts longer and with a renewed depth of feeling.  And occasionally, something disturbing might cross into consciousness, yet like my pace saunter back out.
Are these comforts — texting or calling with a sudden inexplicable and immediate urge to reach out; food seeking at the tiniest pang of hunger;  buying on credit that thing our mind convinces us we need — some readied escape from the unquiet of our own thoughts?  Has the pace of modern life conditioned us to fear that if we aren’t in some way productive, or doing something, even if it’s a productivity as illusory as texting a friend, that we’re wasting precious time?  Have all of our gadgets and preoccupations ushered us away from self-reflectivity, daydreaming, and  imaginative wandering?

I emptied my pockets and unwittingly stumbled across corridors of thought that had been neglected and undernourished under the clutter of convenience and modern gadgetry. 

thoughts on the erotic

July 3rd, 2011

Her seven button
Three undone.

Jeffrey Winke, Coquette (a collection of sensual Haiku)

The erotic is the arousal of our sexual sense through the slowing of attention. The erotic is sexuality, not sex. The erotic refuses to rush past. It rebels against compartmentalizing sexuality to sex, or the bedroom, or erections and orgasms. It slows us down, takes notice, can happen beneath the covers, in a crowded restaurant, cooking a meal, or over a game of chess.

The erotic pays attention. It notices a fold, a texture, a scent, a nuanced gesture with a wink of delight. The erotic is neither the whip nor the whisper, but the lingering of attention to how either, or both, strikes the senses.

Stop the rush of time to notice that peach’s texture as you take your first bite…

…and the feel of a pair of fresh nylons slipping up over your legs…

…and how her hands work the knife when slicing a fresh vegetable.

Lean in and whisper to your spouse, lover, or friend when it would be just as easy to speak in your normal voice. Lay in bed before your morning shower, attuning yourself to the sparrow, neighbor’s voice, and that passing car. And when you finally step into that shower, notice where skin-pleasure inclines you to let the water fall.

The erotic requires no end other than drawing a moment out with a sensory detail. The erotic can see the universe in a grain of sand and satisfy a craving for love through the subtle touch of the hand. “We are obsessed with an insatiable appetite for ever more vivid sensations,” Isabel Allende writes in her book Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. “…a subtle caress, the pleasure of skin against skin, or of sharing a peach is not enough anymore.”

The erotic is our body electric carefully listening, touching, tasting, smelling – stopping time and refusing to not take notice.



March 17th, 2010

We breathe in; we breathe out. Oxygen rushes in. Carbon dioxide moves out.  We inspire. We expire. Without breath, we die.

We take more than 23,000 breaths in a day. Most, if not all, breaths we take without thinking — without noticing. If breathing required thought, we’d not make it very long.

It’s easy for us to take our breathing for granted — as we do most things we don’t think about.

We choke it. We gasp it. We tighten it. We hold it back. Every time we hold our breath, we unconsciously signal to our body that danger is lurking. Even on a casual stroll through the park on a bright summer’s day. No lions there. It’s the mortgage due, the boss, the fight with your spouse or lover. Harbor a distressing thought? As automatically as you breathe, you’ll hold your breath. Danger! Danger!

Fear brings breathlessness. Breathlessness brings fear.

WaitUntilDark.jpg image by JDHallowEEn

Breath in, we take in oxygen — our primary and most crucial source of energy. We can survive three weeks without food. Three days without water. Deprive us of oxygen? A few minutes.

Oxygen kills parasites, viruses, microbes and bacteria that can’t survive in a high oxygen environment. Without oxygen we cannot absorb important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The continuous flow of blood douses our organs and tissues in oxygen. It’s nectar to our cells. Oxygen rich blood continually bathes our brain, which consumes about 20% of the oxygen we breathe in. If the brain is cut off from its oxygen supply for just 10 seconds, we’ll lose consciousness.

Without oxygen, nothing works very well. In fact, nothing works at all.

Hold your breath the sympathetic (flight/flight) nervous system kicks in. Your heart will race in order to divert blood to your muscles. Vigilance. Arousal. Activation. Mobilization. Get ready to run, or fight. Or, to sit immobilized and unsettled.

Take a slow deep breath, your heart rate slows, you decrease perspiration, your muscles relax. That deep breath kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system will go offline. The parasympathetic nervous system mediates calmness. It promotes growth, healing, and energy storage. The all safe signal flashes. Time to lay back. Rest and digest.

Go ahead. Take that slow deep breath. Oxyginate. Make your body drunk with it.


December 6th, 2009

10:37pm…midwinter…20007. An ice storm cut through Ann Arbor downing our electricity for days. Gone the incessant humming, buzzing, and chatter of TVs, microwave ovens, radios, computers, digital clocks, lamps, and the refrigerator. Other than the occasional snapping and popping of a perky fireplace fire, the house was doused in the sudden immensity of silence.

Silence soothes us. Silence unsettles us. Silence both widens our attention and focuses it at the same time. Not because of what we can’t hear, but because of what suddenly we can. At 2 a.m. a silent house  can be an unsettling house. It creaks. It clicks. It shuffles. It’s not that we hear nothing. We hear everything. Each and every unintended noise draws our attention. A silent house jumps to life.

The composer John Cage once entered a soundproof chamber at Harvard University with the intention of listening to absolute silence. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said. Instead of nothing, he heard the whooshing and gurgling of his nervous system and circulating blood. When he emerged he declared that silence does not exist.

What we think of as silence is actually the absence of manmade noise. Kathleen Moore in her article in Search of Silence wrote, “It’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe 12.”,%20Olympic%20National%20Park,%20Washington.jpg

Natural sound has a different quality and texture than man-made sound. There’s randomness. It’s stripped of intention. Think of the difference between the sound of a river or the continuous roaring and splashing of a waterfall, to that of shopping center music, a nearby freeway, or even white noise machines. Man-made noise dulls us. Thought narrows. Sitting by a river, or waterfall, or on a secluded stretch of beach thought becomes expansive. Our nervous system slows and soothes.  We all become philosophers;  we see and hear with clarity life’s bigger picture. (Listen to Caney Creek, Kansas.) Turn off the lights.  Quiet our appliances. Light a candle.  Meditate on the Zen mondo:

Do you hear the rushing of the river?’

‘Yes, Master,’

‘That is the Way.”

Gordon Hempton in his sound journey across America noticed that in a dense moss covered forest you can follow the sound of a rain drop as it tumbles from leaf to branch to leaf. “A drop of rain may hit 20 times before it reaches the ground, and each impact—against a cedar  bough, a vine-maple leaf, a snag—makes its own sound.” And each impact that drop makes you will hear with deafening precision. It’s not the sound itself, but the silence surrounding it. Silence is not the absence of sound, but the amplification sound. (Listen to the evening silence in Amazonia, Brazil.)

In 1952 John Cage’s work 4’33” was performed by the young pianist David Tudor in at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Maverick Concert Hall was ideal for Cage’s 4’33” because the back of the hall was open to the surrounding forest. The piece was four minutes and thirty three seconds of the pianist sitting at the keyboard without playing a single note. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The first movement sounded only the wind in the trees outside the auditorium. The second movement brought raindrops pattering the roof. The third — whispers and mutterings. The piece was a requiem to unintended sound.

Cage said, “People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh — they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven’t forgotten it 30 years later: they’re still angry.” When Tudor finished, raising the keyboard lid and himself from the piano, the audience burst into an uproar — “infuriated and dismayed,” according to the reports.

But Cage’s work wasn’t silent at all. It’s not that nothing happened. For those who actually widened their awareness and listened, they would have heard a world of unintended sound.

Feel daring? In the wee hours of the night, go to your electrical box and flip the circuitry of the entire house to OFF. Sit. Let your awareness widen. Free yourself from intention. Hear the immensity of the surrounding silence.

‘Do you hear the rushing of the river?’

‘Yes, Master.’

‘That is the way.’


Our Monkey Minds

July 4th, 2009 thoughts, spin, twist, twirl and agitate around the cage of our brains.  With all of the billions of neurons in our brains firing on/off – on/off, there’s bound to be a bit of noise.  Buddhists call it our monkey-mind.

In any given hour we’re besieged by hundreds of thoughts.  Most of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had the hour before.  And, the hour before that.  The same thoughts over and over — for hours, days, weeks, and even years.  Sometimes they just come on their own.  Sometimes, we coax the more compelling of the bunch so we can poke and prod them over and over.

The more we think something, the more likely we’ll think it again.  That’s a neurological fact.  To the brain, thought is an action.  To think a thought, then to think it over and over, we strengthen that circuitry.  Fire it up, baby! Soon, it’ll glow at the slightest provocation.  And if fear attaches and catches hold, instinctively we’ll fix to it.  Feed it.  Nourish it.  Hold onto it and watch it grow.

Fear is one of those feelings that’s in love with itself.  It will take the slightest sign of trouble to justify and amplify it’s own existence.  And, if that sign isn’t there?  It will make it up.  It scans the world, our imagination, our memories for it’s reason to be, because…well…that’s what it’s supposed to do.  It’s a feature, not a bug.  Why?  When it comes to survival, it’s better to be wary, wrong, and live, than to take your time to be accurate and end up as somebody else’s meal.

Genetically speaking, physical survival is king. Yet, our psychological lives are tied to this very same survival system.  These days, most of us can go a lifetime without ever having to run for our lives.  Instead, we have deadlines.  Mortgages.  Car breakdowns.  Hundreds of unanswered e-mails marked “urgent”.  Our  freedom from physical danger allows us the privilege to exercise our threat response on bosses, co-workers, lovers, kids, husbands, and wives.

We’re free now to imagine all kinds of threatening possibilities to stir up that monkey cage.  Even better, let’s put that threat sometime in the future when there’s nothing we can do about it.  Watch our monkey-mind agitate.  Imagine that fear coming to get you sometime next week — the body will react as if it’s right in front of your face!

And if we forget that we were afraid?  Oh right!  Let me get back to that! We’ll conjure it back.  We’ll encourage our own obsessiveness over our envies, our grievances, our jealousies, our losses.  We’ll do it in future time where they haven’t yet happened.  It will happen.  It will…it will…it will.   Now, we can sit bracing ourselves while tied to our helplessness.  We’ll sit.  Wait.  Stew within the electro-chemical buzz.  We’ll find meaning in all that brain noise.

Shhh…listen…there are messages in that static.

How we love to rattle our own cage only so we can watch our monkey-thoughts scream, hop about, and agitate.

Sign says, “keep out!”

March 29th, 2009

Urban Confinement II, by Anja Percival

There’s an ache within us — a sense that something essentially human is slipping from our grasp.  We live surrounded by concrete, steel, plastic, and bright unnatural light.  Closed in spaces – whether office cubicles, bedrooms, elevators, our automobiles – are the rule rather than our cozy exception.  Daily, we navigate walkways, gates and fences, crosswalks, locked doors, marked and unmarked property lines.  “No trespassing” signs can bring a contemplative beach stroll to a halt.

We might feel it most in big cities.  No doubt that urban living brings excitement, innovation, and raises incomes and possibilities.   At the same time, the bigger the city, the more crowded our spaces and the more rapid our pace.  In fact, researchers have found that the more populated the city the faster its people walk.   And to move it all along with order and efficiency, time and space has to be structured.  Our lives have become governed by wristwatches, timed traffic lights, scheduling technologies, automatic door locks, and crosswalks.

We’ve learned to live, and even love, our walled-in ordered lives.  The natural world is a wild encroachment, a threat if not bound, ordered, and managed.  Ooooh, baby baby it’s a wild world. “Keep out!” the signs warn.  “Stay within the lines.”  And our ache whispers on.

Signs, by Five Man Electric Band

It shows itself in our chronic anxieties and depressions.  At times, it’s a dull sensation of not being at home in our own skins.  Our blessing and curse is that we’re highly adaptable creatures.  We can learn better than any other creature how to make the most horrid environments home.  In our modern age, we’ve learned to love the comfort and safety of staying inside.

If we’re lucky, once or twice a year we make our escape.  Like hounds dashing through a slit in the screen door, we rush toward our two weeks in the mountains, or by the ocean, or that lakefront cabin.  Hunters hunt.  Rock climbers climb.  Hikers hike.  Campers camp.  Sunners sun.  Then, we rush back to back into the confines of that familiar ache.

Researchers have found that our senses are wired to find certain landscapes appealing.  Our reward circuitry lights up at the sight of hillsides, meandering streams, paths bending around partially blocked views, verdant green foliage capped with color.  To the senses of our evolutionary ancestors these landscapes may have signaled abundance and safety.   Some have argued that our sense of natural beauty is the mechanism that drove our ancestors into suitable habitats.

Pastoral Landscape, Asher Brown Durand, 1861

We are meant to move, not sit around for hours on end watching our tiny little backlit TV and computer screens while eating potato chips. Our visual system loves dashes of color and wide opened spaces with a touch of surrounding mystery.  We are meant to engage our environment, not be confined by it.  We are happiest expressing ourselves.  Listening to the rustling of leaves and babbling of cool water streams.  Using our hands.  Running.  Jumping.  Meandering.  Swimming.  Climbing.  Touching.

To ease that ache need we see past those barriers of concrete and steel?  Need we every now and then throw out our well-ordered schedules for at least one day every week?   It seems we come back into ourselves, if only for a moment, whenever we step off the marked path and into nature’s disordered and wild ways.

The Letter

February 9th, 2009

Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, Rembrandt

A letter makes it personal.  It reaches us like a whisper.  We may steal off to some private corner to unseal the envelope, if only to better reflect on the words without distraction.  We go off to that corner because we can.  A letter can be carried anywhere.  We can secret it between the pages of a book, or in a pocket, or in your bosom beneath your blouse.

To sit down and compose a letter means taking your time, distilling your intent.  There’s paper to choose.  The right pen.  The envelope.  The stamp.  In days of old we’d seal our letters closed with wax.

La Lecture de la Lettre, Picasso

When writing the letter, the words must fall carefully to avoid starting over again.  Of course, we can leave in the scratch-out, the fingerprint, the smudge, the spill of coffee.  To the spouse, lover, or dear friend the misfortune is not a stain, but your actual presence on the page.  Leave it, you create a deeper intimacy.

Letters can be heart-filled, or poisoned.   A letter can be sensual, tearful, raging, philosophical, mundane.  A letter has a weight and texture that we can know through our hands.  It can carry a lock of hair, or the trace of perfume.

Napolean scolded his Josephene, “You never write to me at all, you do not love your husband; you know the pleasure that your letters give him yet you cannot even manage to write him half a dozen lines, dashed off in a moment! What then do you do all day, Madame? What business is so vital that it robs you of the time to write to your faithful lover?”

One way or another, a letter begs the writer’s attention and time.

A letter is handled.  Held.  Touched.  Read.  Reread.  Folded.  The envelope is licked and addressed.  The stamp is carefully, or carelessly, secured in its corner.  One way or another, you are worth the time and the 42 or some odd cents.

Ask the soldier on the front what it is to receive a letter.  If it’s from a wife or lover, he might hold it to his nose hoping to catch her scent.  He might kiss it.  Lick the envelope’s glue as if seizing the taste of her lips from afar.

Captain Joseph Bush wrote to his wife from Vietnam, “If my mail means as much to you as yours does to me then I know how you feel when the mailbox is empty.  Whether or not I get a letter determines if it’s a good day or not.” (1)

A letter holds the other’s presence.  It demands thought.  Reflection.  A sense that the distance between us matters.

“ooooh, my baby she wrote me a letter…”, that soulful Joe Cocker


from Dear America:  Letters Home from Vietnam, edited by Bernard Edelman.

Waking in the Wee Hours

January 31st, 2009

Samual Awaking Eli,  George de la Tour

2:48 am.  For no apparent reason, we’ve awakened.  “Four more hours,” we think, then toss to our other side.  If lucky, sleep overtakes us for the rest of the night.  If not, we lay there fretting about the loss of sleep, thus cheating ourselves – not of sleep, but of the wee hours.

Segmented sleep may be more natural to us than a continuous eight hours. In his book At Day’s Close, historian A. Roger Ekirch writes, “Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.”

Anthropologist Carol Worthman studied the sleep patterns of non-Western populations where artificial light is minimal, if not absent all together.  From the !Kung hunter-gatherers in Africa to the Swat Pathan herders in Pakistan, Dr. Worthman documented a pattern of communal sleep in which individuals drifted in and out of sleep throughout the night.  Other anthropologists have found that in some African villages, Tiv, Chagga, and G/wi, for example, life after midnight is surprisingly lively with newly roused adults and children.

Could it be that there was an evolutionary advantage to segmented sleep?  Life in the open savannas was brimming with nocturnal predators.  Periods of nightly awakening may have been crucial to our survival.

The Sleeping Gypsy, Henri Rousseau

Dr. Thomas Wehr at the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a landmark experiment in which he placed a group of normal volunteers in 14-hour dark periods each day for a month. As part of the experiment, he let the subjects sleep as much and as long as they wanted.

By the fourth week, subjects averaged 3-5 hours of solid sleep, followed by an hour or two of peaceful wakefulness.  Then, they returned to sleep for another 3-5 hour sleep period.  Such a pattern of interrupted sleep has been observed in other wild animals.

What did our pre-modern european relatives do during that time of our first awakening, or as some would call it, the watch?  First of all, few of us fretted.  We viewed that time as natural to our nocturnal stirrings.  We’d smoke tobacco.  Tend a fire.  Pray.  Study.   Talk with our bedmate.  Copulate.  Some of us would leave our beds;  some would not.  Benjamin Franklin would take “cold air baths” or sit naked in his chamber and read, or write.

Godfried Schlalcken (1643-1706)

It was a time for magic, for mischief, for light domestic work, or for reflection. This time “twixt sleepe and wake” is semi-conscious.  As Nathaniel Hawthorn insisted in The Haunted Mind, it was a time “where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly present.”  In 1692, the Hammersmith minister John Wade complained it was a time of “unsettled independent thoughts,”  “vain unprofitable musing,”  and “devising mischief.”

Dr. Wehr likens this intermittent period of wakefulness to something approaching an altered state of consciousness with a physiology all its own.  In the wee hours, silence is magnified, our thoughts concoct schemes and plans, we pull together far reaching connections, and our minds seem as if primed for self- reflection.

Maria Magdalena, George de la Tour

Next time you awaken in those wee hours – slip out of bed, wander the darkness of your house, sit in your favorite chair, perhaps light a candle, or brew a cup of tea.  Take out that notebook and draw, or write in your journal.  Soak in the sensibility of that forgotten segment of time lost to our age of time schedules, computer screens, i-phones, 24-hour cable news, and artificial light.  Tell yourself that it’s not a time of lost sleep, but merely the night’s first awakening.


Read: Ekirch, A. Roger, At Day’s Close.  W.W. Norton & Co.  2005.

Our beast within

December 7th, 2008

fromMorning Poem” by Mary Oliver

There is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted…

For tens of thousands of years, we humans chased gazelles.  We wove baskets.  We sharpened sticks, chiseled stones, buried our dead with our bare hands.  We ate grasses, seeds, berries and nuts.  And, if our chase was successful, we tore into the succulent flank of that speared gazelle.  We harnessed fire for warmth and protection, and eventually learned to coax it from the earth using sticks, stone and dried grass.   The sight of fire mesmerizes us, still – ancestral memory encoded mysteriously in our DNA.

Intimately, we knew wind, rain, ice, and unbearable heat.  We huddled together under canopies of stars – the wisest among us could see patterns and shapes in the specks of myriad lights to help us navigate where we were and where we were going.  We migrated hundreds of miles by foot, the trip taking weeks, if not years, chasing elk, or sunshine, or rain clouds, or our sixth sense that water was somewhere across that barren plain.  Pools, lakes, rivers and streams were our lifeblood.  Even now the sound of water draws us in – irresistibly.

One zen mondo goes:

‘Do you hear the rushing of the river?’
‘Yes, Master.’
‘That is the way.’

Listen to the sound of rushing water

For hundreds of thousands of years we lived in small bands of foragers, gatherers, and hunters amidst wide-opened savannas.  Survival depended upon cunning, group living, and an intimate knowing about the natural world. Steven Pinker wrote, “Life for foragers (including our ancestors) is a camping trip that never ends, but without the space blankets, Swiss Army knives, and freeze-dried pasta al pesto.”  (Pinker, How the Mind Works p.188)  We weren’t the fastest or the strongest.  We had no claws, wings, nor gills.  Instead, we lived in packs of a hundred or so, walked upright, anticipated the future in days, weeks and months, and evolved a miraculous set of hands with their opposable thumbs.

It’s been estimated that our earliest ancestors first sharpened sticks 6 million years ago, first carved stone tools 2-3 million years ago.  We tamed fire 1.8 million years ago.  We adorned our clothes with red ochre 250,000 years ago, painted cave walls 40,000 years ago, and began to domesticate plants and animals a mere 12-15,000 years ago.

Cave painting, Lascaux, France – 15,000 years ago

Our modern age with its artificial light, trains, jetliners, fast food restaurants, tools, plastic containers, guns, bombs, computers, cities of millions — where space per person is measured in feet as opposed to thousands of miles — is less than 1 percent of 1 percent of our time on earth. Its advantages and conveniences are unparalleled in human history. We don’t die of diseases that would have cut short our lives by decades.  We aren’t eaten by predators, or die too soon from the ravages of some unfortunate fall. We can cross the planet in the time it takes to eat three meals, and not have to take one step outside into the snow, rain, or unbearable heat.

Yet, rates of depression tend to be lowest in hunter-gatherer or purely agricultural societies, higher in industrial societies, and highest in societies  in transition.  We are both industrial AND in transition.  (Transition to what, we don’t yet know.)  Our life speed and modern worries are somehow incompatible with the millions of years under which our sensibilities evolved.  Our age has been dubbed the Age of Anxiety for a reason.

The Industrial Society, by Manuel Balea.  (See all his work at Manuel Balea at

Andrew Solomon wrote in Noonday Demon, “In the wild, animals tend to have momentary awful situations and then to resolve it by surviving or dying.  Except for persistent hunger, there is no chronic stress.  Wild animals do not take on jobs that they regret;  do not force themselves to interact calmly, year after year, with those they dislike;  do not have child custody battles.”  (Solomon,  p.407)

Think of these pleasures from our pleistocene past and their capacity to draw our troubles away, if even for an instant:

A walk in the woods,
Coming upon a vista, or wide opened clearing,
Sitting by a river,
Climbing a tree,
The smell of grass after a summer rain,
Looking up into a starry night,
Staring into a fire,
Napping beneath a tree,
Spotting the track of an animal,
Cupping mud, clay, or fresh soil in the palm of our hands,
Potting, weaving, widdling a stick,
Cracking a nut,
Throwing a rock and watching it sail through the air,
Burying our toes in the sand,
The sight of a wild animal crossing our path,
Suddenly breaking out into a run…

There is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted…

The Cobra and the Mongoose: psychics, mindreaders and rogue magicians

October 1st, 2008

Tarot. Astrology. Mind-reading. Channeling. Make these claims to a magician, and be prepared to dodge his bite. In the magician’s world, psychics are at worst liars, cheats, and swindlers who prey on people’s pain. At best, they are self-deceived charlatans — highly intuitive, perhaps –but gullible to their own trickery. (Watch accompanying videos as much for their entertainment value.)

Illusionist Chriss Angel takes on paranormalist James Callahan. (See James Callahan’s full performance by pressing here.)

The fight is as bitter as that between mongoose and cobra. If you’re a psychic in the company of a magician be prepared for the challenge – “dare to show me your psychic gift and I’ll dare to expose the man behind your curtain.” From Houdini’s challenge to famed spiritualist Mina Crandon, to the Amazing Randi dogging psychic healer Doris Collins. Through misdirection, switching, hypnosis, cold reading, and other forms of trickery, contemporary magicians and illusionists such as Penn & Teller, Chriss Angel, David Blaine, and Derren Brown can make a skeptic out of the most die-hard believer.

Mentalist Derren Brown demonstrates “cold reading” technique (click twice for youtube video)

We are most vulnerable when we are in pain. We will turn anywhere for comfort. Sometimes in spite of ourselves, we will choose to believe the comforting wish, over a crueler truth. The shadow side to our capacity to imagine is that we are prey to illusions and unsubstantiated beliefs. A case can be made, albeit an arguable one, that it’s these very illusions that help us endure through troubled, uncertain times, and sometimes to keep us pushing forward when the odds are clearly against us.

David Blaine turns coffee to money. Better than water to wine?

What we perceive about the world doesn’t have to be accurate, only “good enough.” Good enough so we can feed ourselves, protect ourselves, and mate. Throughout two million years of evolutionary history, survival depended on quick judgments. We sacrificed accuracy for reactions that increased the odds we’d not only save our own skins, but also feel better inside our skins when times were hard, cold, and cruel. It’s better to be wrong and safe, mated, fed, certain, and un-alone, than to strive for accuracy and end up dead.

rotating snake illusion

rotating snake illusion

Sight is powerful to belief, even if what we see isn’t exactly what’s before us. (See some interesting optical illusions.) We don’t always see what’s there, but what we expect to see. Or, we tell ourselves a good story that confirms what we most hope, or most fear.

Moreover, we are not prone to being skeptics about our own beliefs. We are given to snap judgments. We are bad at estimating probabilities. We fail to understand that mysterious coincidences are far more likely than we want to believe. (Did you know that in a room or office of 23 people there’s a 50-50 chance that two of those people will share the same birthday?) We look only to confirm that which we want to believe, not seek the evidence against. One of the hardest things in the world for our minds to do is to look for information that disproves the stories and beliefs from which we draw comfort and strength.

James Randi and psychic Maureen Flynn

The psychic upholds our need for comfort in the thought that there’s a place beyond this world and, indeed, we are not alone. The magician will bring doubt to our beliefs in ghosts, spirits, reading the future in the stars, and then show you the trick — “Anything they can do, I can do and better.” Theirs is a complex, illusory reality filled with trickery, misdirection, and disguises. “Face it,” they seem to say, “you are on your own.”

Penn & Teller’s 7 basic principles of magic

The magician’s challenge is as much toward you and me. Be skeptical of what you see. Look for the man behind the curtain. If you see hoof prints think first of horses, even if you’ve come to believe that unicorns do, in fact, exist. (1)

Astrology? Watch at your own risk. (Click twice for youtube video)

1) Cognitive scientists and visual neuroscientists are now utilizing magicians and their tricks to study such phenomena as visual tracking, attention, and awareness. Stephen Macknik, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, and Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience, are working with magicians James Randi (The Amazing Randi), Teller (of Penn & Teller), Apollo Robbins, Mac King and John Thomson (The Great Tomsoni).

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