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Our thirst for magic

There is no doubt that even in our seemingly enlightened and secular age, magic is well and alive: J. K. Rowling pocketed over one billion US Dollar with her saga about Harry Potter; C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were turned into very lucrative blockbusters; magicians play for sold-out houses; and the story goes on and on. What is more, magic is not only an integral part of entertainment, but it also assumes noticeable roles in our daily affairs. The severity of this reliance spans from an infatuation with astrology at the lower end, a rather consequential reliance on faith healing in the middle, and sinister and lethal witch hunts at the extreme.

Magic is all all around us, and it definitely has not lost its sting. Why is this, why is magic so tantalising and fascinating, even for secular people?

Before I share my thoughts about why we are so infatuated with magic, let me first establish common ground by explaining what I mean by magic. For this Collins Dictionary comes handy: magic is “the art that, by use of spells, supposedly invokes supernatural powers to influence events”. This is plain enough, magic = utilised supernatural powers. From an enlightened point of view such wishful thinking might make sense for people who do not know better, but why can rational people enjoy, for instance, brick-sized books that are sated with the supernatural, i.e. sated with things that are clearly irrational and impossible?

Notice that this infatuation with magic is different from what in common parlance referred to as magical thinking. Magical thinking relates to the phenomenon that even secular people invoke magical thinking in every-day life: knocking on wood, attributing guilt (as an essence) to someone, things happen for a reason, etc.

It is my contention that the main attraction of magic are the strong emotions it evokes, of which wonder is the central one. A magical world is a truly wondrous world. This too is covered by the semantics of magic. According to Collins, magic is also “any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power”. Notice that this second definition of magic contains two qualifiers for magic: something that is mysterious, namely something that we do not understand, and/or something of extraordinary quality and power.

So why is the mysterious, the extraordinary, and the sense of awe and wonder it inspires, so intoxicating and central to who we are? The scientific literature on this topic indicates many positive effects of awe. For example, Shiota et al.’s findings from 2007 suggest that “awe-prone people are particularly comfortable with revising their mental representations of the world.” As Fredrickson summarises their findings: “The experience of awe compels people to absorb and accommodate this new vastness they’ve encountered. The durable resources awe creates are new worldviews”. So, awe opens the mind, and it actually also makes one think that one has more time available. The latter effect is one of the recent findings of Rudd et al. They also reported that experiencing awe increases the willingness to volunteer time for helping others. Also, when awe is accompanied with moral elevation, it can increase the secretion of oxytocin and make one more likely to nurse and bond. Oxytocin might also speed up wound healing. So, in total, awe comes with a rather compelling list of advantages.

However, all these positive effects give only a very indirect explanation why we humans are emotionally addicted to the feeling of wonder and awe. For remember: most of the advantages reported above are of an instrumental, not of an emotional nature (changing one’s world view, experiencing a surplus of time, ….). Where are the emotional “kicks”, the reward mechanisms one would expect when witnessing the ubiquitous enchantment with magic? One could of course offer the behavioural argument that the mental connection of awe with instrumental gains might be sufficient for explaining our enchantment with awe. The reason for why I think this is not all there is to this, is based on my own experience. The elatedness and well-being I immediately experience when in awe (thus even before any of the above instrumental gains can take appearance), might indicate that distinct reward mechanisms in the brain are at work here. I have not been able to find any reports on such effects in the pertinent literature, but this does actually not come as big surprise, since the neuro-biological research of emotion and internal reward mechanisms tied to them is in its infancy.

Reward mechanisms together with instrumental gains yielded by awe are a convincing explanation for our infatuation with magic. I know that I failed to provide empirical evidence for the reward mechanisms, but let us, for the sake of discussion, assume that these mechanism do exist. So, in essence, we are infatuated, smitten, or even addicted to magic, the degree depending on one’s own vantage point.

What next?

Thus far I have familiarised the reader with the phenomenon of a vibrant devotion to magic in a secular age, the definition of magic, and a coarse explanation for why we might be so infatuated with magic. So where do we go from here, and where does the title of this blog post figure in?

The cliff-note version of this blog post reads as follows: One, magic plays a non-negligible role in our every-day life. Two, I accept this as a matter of fact. Three, I contend though that we are misappropriating our devotion to the wrong type of magic. There are real objects of truly extraordinary and thus magical dimension all around us, and not only does a recognition of this fact dramatically enrich our supply of magic, but the awesomeness of “natural magic” readily eclipses that of standard-lore magic. Four, I am fully aware that this whole topic is not as simple as I make it out to be in this cliff-note summary. This is why I end this blog post with an outlook on how we might be able to harvest this incredible potential of the magic of naturalism.

What next? I am preparing the stage with an overview on magic and magical potions in particular. The purpose of this discourse is to provide some standards against which to measure the proclaimed awesomeness of natural potions. After this I discuss, how natural potions, can be more awesome than their magical counterparts, before I illustrate my claims by a historical example. After that I round up the discussion of why although I provide a sound argument, “natural magic” does not feel that magical, and I share my thoughts about what to do about this under-appropriation of awe.

Welcome to the wondrous world of magic!

One of the intriguing aspects of the Harry-Potter septet is the almost baroque wealth of magical objects that are used in its wizarding world. Just for comparison, the printout of the Wikipedia article addressing these objects is 30 pages long, while the article covering the entire Apollo Programme, which brought people to the moon for the first time in human history, is a paltry 25 pages long. (Read the previous sentence again.)

Some of these magical objects are genuine products of the Harry-Potter universe, like the Knight Bus and, of course, the Elder Wand, while other objects in this universe are rather familiar, since they are part of our shared heritage. To such objects I count potions, since magical potions constitute an integral part of human history. Potions do not dominate the Harry-Potter universe; many assume minor roles, like Amortentia. However, other potions, like Polyjuice Potion, which allows one to assume another person’s appearance, is a heavy-relied-on potion in the conflict-laden Harry-Potter universe.

Magical artefacts are of course not confined to children’s literature, they are central to myths and sagas too. Just think of Tristan and Iseult: without the love potion, their story would merely consist of a long, long ride through the European country side. Bereft of the magical potion, I think, this story would only enchant the paramours of equestrian travel tales, a rather small audience indeed.

Magical potions are important ingredients of myth, folklore, and literature, but potions are of course not necessarily magical. On the contrary, potions are all around us. Herb medications often come as potions, and even cough syrups belongs to them. Non-magical potions have also played significant roles in the political history of humanity. One example is assassination by potion, which was developed to an art form at the royal courts of the Renaissance.

Are only magical potions wondrous?

It is easy to agree that natural potions are not wondrous, especially when compared to magical counterparts such as Polyjuice Potion. Just think of what I said earlier about the natural potions that were used for assassinations: while killing your adversary with a potion might be very handy, I am surely hardly the only one who fails to see anything magical in such a potion.

The tenor of what I have written so far can be translated into “magical potions = wondrous and awesome,” while “natural potions = rather mundane.” So where is the magic of naturalism, where are the awesome natural potions I was talking about? Are there actually any awe-inspiring potions that meet the second criteria of magic, namely that they possess “any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power”?

The answer is of course yes. Let me split my argument into two. First, there is indeed more wonder in the world than one might think, for it has emerged slowly and almost unnoticed. What I am eluding to is modern medicine, especially scientifically inspired hygiene and of penicillin. Both have saved more lives than all the literary magical potions combined. Just consider penicillin, which is the secretion from mould: judiciously administered it can cure many diseases that were death sentence before its discovery. One of these diseases is gangrene.

Second, and even more important, natural potions can be more wondrous than magical ones not because they yield the same effects (but on a grander scale), but rather because natural potions operate in domains that are not accessible to standard-lore magic. In other words: magical potions have systematic limits.

Magical potions come with systematic short comings?? Are they not supernatural and can thus manipulate the natural world in any conceivable way? Apparently not. In order to elude my claim, let me return to the Harry-Potter septet for a moment. I already mentioned Amortentia and Polyjuice Potion, but there are of course many other notable potions in the Harry-Potter wizarding world: Confusing Concoction, Draught of Living Death (death-like sleep), Draught of Peace (calming potion), Felix Felicis (a.k.a. Liquid Luck), and so on. When spending some thought on what these and other magical potions do, one discovers that they -and not just the potions in the Harry Potter septet- are actually imbued with a paradoxical air of vacuousness. What I mean by this is that their wondrous powers are rather limited in latitude. Here, latitude is an umbrella term. What I want to say by limited latitude is that magical potions are mostly mono-thematic (love potion, invisibility potion, …) and that they are usually only put in action in very few instances. Further more, their effects are often quite limited in both geographic reach and duration.

One might of course argue that the scarcity of such potions is a tribute to their utter importance. Tristan’s and Iseult’s love, the argument goes, is actually elevated by the rareness of the potion they drank. Just imagine a universe in which love potions are as ubiquitous as Coca Cola: would we entertain the sanctity and special power of love in such a world? Would anyone pick up the tale of Tristan and Iseult in such a world? Further more, one might argue that magical potions need to be rare, otherwise reality as we know it, and even the Harry Potter universe, might disintegrate. However, I do not agree with this last conclusion; worlds that are sated with awesome essences are perceivable, can be stable from a narrative point of view, and they can be more than worth writing about. A non-potion example for ubiquitous magic is the Cure-all-Wounds wand in the Pathfinder role-play universe.

So, in essence, natural potions can readily outperform magical ones if they are either poly-thematic, ubiquitous, long-term operative, or large-scale operative. These effects would of course still have to be rather awe-inspiring, namely in possession of an “extraordinary quality or power” (Collins Dictionary).

My argument seems to have come to a close though, since if any such awesome natural potion existed, would it not be familiar to everyone, and would not all this persuasion and arguing be superfluous at best? The answer is no, because we seem to suffer from a blindness for wonders, as my previous example of penicillin tried to elucidate. In other words, such a wondrous natural potion can -despite is awesome might- actually appear rather common place and mundane to us.

I am actually aware of more than one potion, but for the sake of not turning this blog post into a brick-sized book I limit myself to one that exhibits the virtues of being being poly-thematic and ubiquitous at the same time, and which operates on quite astonishing geographic scales. The potion I have in mind is coffee.

Coffee is one of the deserved heroes in Tom Standage’s captivating book “The History of the World in Six Glasses” and I will do my best to convey its awesome powers to the reader of this blog post.

Magic almost lost

I had been toying with the idea of writing this blog post for a considerate while, but other things came in between, and I had thus pushed this topic to the back of my mind. One day though, it almost jumped at me again, which happened while listening to a message a friend of mine had recorded for me. It started like this: “Good morning! As I was thinking about starting this message, I was feeling none inspired, and I am extremely tired this morning and slightly mentally lethargic, and I was thinking ‘well, I don’t really know if I am going to have very cogent thoughts this morning for you;’ and then I had my first sip of coffee, and it was like ‘oh wow’, it’s like so enlightening. After the first shot of caffeine gets into the blood stream you know, it’s amazing how it goes right to your mind.”

This is not only a very cute opening for a recording, but this is also, in a very personal way, a perfect summary of Standage’s core thesis about coffee, namely that it was coffee that if not effectuated the Enlightenment, at least significantly advanced it. Thanks to my friend I suddenly recalled that I had wanted to write a homage to coffee and the fine book that had introduced me to the astonishing role coffee has played in European history. So, one could say, magic prevailed.

The magic of coffee

If one thinks of what the Age of Enlightenment stands for, namely the promotion of science, rationality, and intellectual interchange, and of course also a strong opposition to “superstition, intolerance and abuses by church and state”, then it is not really obvious, why Standage claims a centre-stage role for coffee in the process of enlightenment, since none of these activities are directly intertwined with the mundane aspects of growing coffee, selling it, brewing it, etc. One of the great thinkers of Enlightenment though might lead us on the right track: Voltaire was an advocate of coffee, and “he was purported to have drunk the beverage at least 30 times per day.”

When coffee entered the Europe in the second half of the 17th century, the world of beverages was rather frugal, at least from our contemporary vantage point. The main beverages at hand were (diluted) wine, liquor, beer, and cider. There was also spring and well water, which especially on the European country side, was available in good quantities. However, in the polluted cities of that time, water was anything but potable. So, the average European city dweller who did not want to be a recurrent victim to water-carried diseases like dysentery, had no other choice than committing herself to the influence of alcohol. Light beer and diluted wine were, if one could afford it, frequent visitors at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table.

While alcoholic beverages have the virtue of being intrinsically disinfected, they are otherwise anything but conducive of a productive life. Just imagine being (lightly) drunk day in and out, and that already from early childhood. This is exactly where coffee enters the picture. Instead of dulling one’s mind and slowing down one’s reaction time coffee has quite the opposite effect. It is a drug for sure, but one that is stimulating and sleep-suppressing. We might not find these effects to be very strong, so the alleged wondrousness of coffee seems to be somewhat exaggerated, but this is because we start from the baseline of not being perpetually inebriated. If one considers how productive, coherent, and cogent one is while under the influence (in other words how little), the difference coffee makes appears more tangible and significant. As Standage puts it: “Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

Where the magic stems from: the large-scale effects of coffee

Thus far we have only looked at the small-scale effects of coffee, namely its effect on the individual consuming this potion (alertness, sleep-suppression). These effects are rather unimpressive and do not compare at all with the wondrousness of magical potions in the Harry-Potter septet. However, the true magnificence of coffee lays in its large-scale effects, namely in how coffee changes the fabric of group interactions and, through secondary effects, that of entire societies.

The large-scale agency of coffee is partially attributable to its invigorating effect, but another of it properties is also is central to its effectiveness. What I am eluding to is something that first might appear as a downside of coffee: the laboriousness of its preparation. Remember, coffee needs to be prepared from boiled water, and coffee is usually served hot. This is of course the reason of why coffee is disinfected and why it is much healthier than the average, disease-laden well water of classicist cities. However, this also means that coffee requires quite some preparation. While this seems so obvious to not warrant mention, the significance becomes clear when one is reminded that the only ubiquitous source of heat before the advent of electricity was fire. So instead of just placing a cup under a coffee dispenser and pushing a button, coffee preparation was rather tedious an undertaking. It thus came naturally to prepare more than one cup of coffee at a time, especially when one wanted to make a business of selling coffee as a beverage.

So, in essence, the very process of preparing coffee strongly biased this beverage toward a bulk beverage served to rather many than few. Like beer and wine it has thus always been a social drink.

From being a bastion of pubs, Europe experienced a profound transformation in the second half of the 17th century. Let us have a look at London, which “between 1680 and 1730, consumed more coffee than anywhere else on Earth.” Coffee and the concept of Arabic coffeehouses were introduced to London as late as 1652. In the initial phase coffee houses served as meeting places for the royalist opposition to Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. Already then the style of coffeehouses was in stark contrast to that of taverns: they “were well lit, and adorned with bookshelves, mirrors, pictures in gilt frames, and good furniture.” After the Royalists came back into power, coffeehouses might have fallen out of favour again, had it not been for a clientèle, for which these semi-public places were perfect biotopes: Puritans and capitalists, often in personal union. Coffeehouses for them were “convenient and respectable public places in which to meet and do business.”

Coffee was thus the seed for a new type of semi-public venues, and that was just the beginning. For we should not think of coffeehouses as isolated venues, where the occurring lively discussions stayed constrained in its premisses. Rather, coffeehouses in London constituted nodes in a vibrant information network. Instead of being parcelled in Internet packages, as it is the hallmark of our time, information was of course transported and distributed by people. One contributing factor for this was the specialisation of coffeehouses. Instead of the generic cafés one usually finds in contemporary cities, London’s coffeehouses catered to single professions. “Those around St. James’s and Westminster were frequented by politicians; those near St. Paul’s Cathedral by clergymen and theologians. The literary set, meanwhile, congregated at Will’s coffeehouse in John Dryden.” This constitutes a fragmentation and appears less desirable than the prevalence of “homogeneous coffeehouses,” for which no such forwarding of information had been needed, since each coffeehouse would have been bestowed with a representative sample of the population and thus information. But this supposed advantage of poly-thematic coffeehouses quickly evaporates under scrutiny. First, some information origins from one person only. Examples for these are scientific discoveries, but also unique conclusions drawn from recent events. So, inadvertently, even in a “poly-thematic coffeehouse” scenario, only one of the coffeehouses would be exposed to such new information. Second, how would one delineate frivolous information from such that matters? What one needs is a content filter, and the filter was provided by the rather limited memory and attention span of those frequenting several coffeehouses. They not only became information carriers, but they unconsciously guaranteed that only the most important, juicy message was passed on. A good example for such an information carrier was Robert Hooke, a scientist and contemporary of Isaac Newton. Hooke visited “around sixty London coffeehouses during the 1670s, as recorded in his diary.” And Hooke was anything but a quiet observer. He involved himself in and started many discussions, one of which actually prompted Newton to finally publish his ground-breaking work on mechanics. I will revisit the event later again.

So, while coffeehouses were incubators for private communication, news and gossip of a significance large enough to cling to the carrier’s memory spread through London coffeehouses. In other words, the fragmentation of coffeehouses combined with nomadic patrons formed a network of petri dishes, where only the most “contagious” ideas were passed on.

These patrons were actually not the only means of spreading information. A more concerted, synchronised distribution of facts was accomplished through news posts at coffeehouses. These posts were compiled and copied by hand and then distributed to subscribing coffeehouses. Such custom was not unknown to pre-coffee England. The year 1622, well before the “Age of Coffee”, saw the establishment of The Weekly Newes. But the new coffeehouse culture in London spawned a plethora of high-frequency news publications, featuring commodity prices, share prices, shipping lists, foreign news, etc.

Another large-scale effect of coffeehouses was the cross over of information and ideas between domains. In our age of technology parks and job fairs at universities, the connection between science and business is a given one, but this has not always been so. Before the advent of coffeehouses, this interaction was very erratic and rare. However, in coffeehouses business men and scientists met, and the egalitarian atmosphere in these establishment enabled the fast cross over of new scientific discoveries into business. Here it is important to point out, that being a scientist back in the 17th century did not necessarily imply an affiliation with a university. Science was often pursued as a hobby of many a gentleman, and coffeehouses were thus ideal places outside the university gates, where they could meet with peers. And it was not just discussion that took place, but also lectures were given and experiments were shown.

As an example for this crossover let us look at the intersection of physics, especially mechanics, and trade. Newton’s grand work “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, published in 1687, provides a framework and methods for predicting the movement of the planets. The question of celestial mechanics, and how it connects to Terran mechanics, has, of course, deep scientific and philosophic merits, but this is not the only reason for the interest this question had attracted during almost two thousand years. It might not even have been the most relevant reason. For England as a seafaring nation, ship navigation and also the prediction of ebb and tide were of greatest importance. It might sound queer to the today’s reader, but before Newton’s systematic approach to this topic there was no explanation for high tides, and there was no rigorous way for predicting them. So it was no surprise that -also thank to the coffeehouse Internet-, his lucrative findings fell on fertile economic grounds. Had it not been for his lively interactions with Hooke, his findings might well have followed him into his grave.

It was of course not only new findings in celestial mechanics that quickly found their interest among business men. Another example for this rapid adoption of new scientific findings by aid of the coffeehouse internet is carbonated water. Ground-breaking discoveries by Joseph Priestly, followed by breakthroughs in the processing of carbonated water, eventually gave rise to one of the biggest food industries in the world: the production of soft drinks. And it was in London’s coffee house that this discovery was hotly discussed over equally hot cups of coffee. What we thus witness in London’s coffeehouses is the first, semi-systematic interlocking of scientific advance and industrial revolution. In total, the coffeehouse network of London was a novel, interconnected platform for budding revolutions in science, commerce, and politics.

Enabling platforms like the coffeehouse Internet have been the source of the unparalleled innovation power of cities. A simplistic theory of innovation would predict that the innovative power of a city is direct proportional to the number of inhabitants, but recent research has revealed that larger size comes with a surplus of innovative power. A city with ten times larger populace features a twentytimes -not ten times- higher innovative activity, while a one hundred times larger city features a three hundred times larger innovative activity. Such a super-linear scaling with population stems, among others, from the higher connectedness of people living in the cities. As we have seen, coffee is one of the mediators of exactly this kind of connectedness: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

But the power of coffee goes beyond that of merely connecting people. Such a connection results in a vigorous but still tethered social dynamics. However, what happens when the changes introduced through the coffeehouse culture are too rapid and too large to be absorbed by society? Or, what if the discord between the enlightened, classless world of the coffeehouse clashes with a sclerotic regime? Does a phase transition of the societal system, namely a revolution, ensue? This question has actually already been answered: it happened in Paris in 1789. By this I am not merely eluding to the fact that the French revolution was set in motion at a café in Paris, namely Café de Foy. Rather, cafés were the perfect meeting places for those opposing the Ancien Régime. This is a familiar phenomenon, since London’s coffeehouses were regular meeting places for the Royal opposition. However, due to forces laying outside the realm of the coffeehouse sphere, the English Royalist soon came back to power, so the tension between coffeehouse parlour and thought and that of the outside society did not reach dangerous levels. But in the case of France, the status quo of the Ancien Régime was cemented, and the opposition was fuelled by the increasing discord between an upper class detached from the rest of the populace, by a strong oppression through secret police, and by the incarceration of political dissidents. The Parisian cafés provided the perfect, semi-open venues for the opposition, and when a financial crisis hit France in 1788, the political tension resulted in widespread disaffection, especially of the middle class. The opposition harboured by the cafés, turned this disaffection into a tumultuous revolution in 1789. So, the integrating large-scale effects of coffee even can fertilise and instigate revolutions.

An index card for magical coffee

Let me summarise what we have learned so far about the magic of coffee:

  1. Coffee freed Western Europe “from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

  2. It enabled the encounter of thenceforth awake denizens in the major capitals of Europe. These encounters took place in newly established places of coffee consumption.

  3. These places were soon woven into a spontaneous, informal network of information exchange.

  4. These places and the network they were woven into nourished international capitalism, established new interfaces between science and commerce, gave room for novel political ideas, and they even were the incubators of the French Revolution.

Put on an index card like this, coffee indeed comes across like a potion of extraordinary powers. Awesome powers, I might say! Such a potion could easily play a limelight role in epic fantasy. By this end I can end my story: we crave magic in our lives, and my example suggest that the natural world actually is sated with magic.

Convincing the unconvinced reader

Right, the rhetoric of my above summary sounds a bit laboured. If coffee was magic, would I need to ramble about it page after page? Is coffee magic after all? Is it not maybe imbued with a gloom of prosaicness?

Actually, I do agree. Not that I think I failed in fleshing out the extraordinary events in human history that were enabled by coffee, but something is indeed missing. Let us take step back for a moment and take a wider look.

We are healing the sick in truly magical numbers and with ditto efficacy, and we are regularly flying through the air, but none of these deeds feel hardly magical at all. Despite the epic powers that emerging technology lends us (and future technology will do), or achievements just do not seem to be all that wondrous. Rather, technology seems to be mundane, laboured, and limited, while magic is alluring, exciting, and limitless. And all that for the very same reason that coffee does not come across as magic: it is because the definition in Collins Dictionary, namely that magic is “any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power” is wrong in a small but oh so important detail: it is the word “or”. The definition should instead read “any both mysterious and extraordinary quality or power”. In other words, mystery is a necessary condition for magic.

Proving my point

Let me prove my point by recasting the above summary in a different language.

Not all too long ago, in Middle-Earth, the people of the countries of Urub were under a terrible spell. Their waters were poisoned, and the only available alternative for quenching their thirst was an evil potion, which made the denizens of Urub dull, docile, and slow in mind. This evil spell had prevailed for many hundreds of years, until, one day, courageous explorers reached the countries of Ah Rabia, where they were introduced to a hitherto unknown potion of great powers. The Ah Rabians called it Qahwah. Although this potion was as dark as the deepest night, it actually cast the ones who tasted from it into the light. Qahwah both pointed to the past, to the night the people had dwelt in, and to the future by virtue of the light it imbued the people with. The explorers, cast into the light, woke up from a long, long, unruly sleep, and they felt electrified, their minds were clearer than ever before.

Not surprisingly, the explorers brought Qahwaw back to their home countries of Urub. They had to cross many a desert and many an ocean, but they prevailed and introduced their fellow denizens to this mighty magical potion. And, lo and behold, not many summers had passed, and the countries of Urub emerged from the terrible spell that had lasted for centuries. From having been dull and docile, the denizens were transformed into children of the light. Their clear minds saw the world around themselves for the very first time since the beginning of time, and all the problems their hazed minds had not be able to solve were suddenly solvable. They did away with old, oppressive rulers or made them kinder; they came together and exchanged the products of their shires, making the life of everyone richer and more multifaceted; and there emerged many a wise man, unlocking the mysteries of creation. The denizens of Urub slowly acquired new, awesome powers; they became able to predict the course of the morning star, the currents of the sea, and they even became able to tell how far they were from home by simply looking at the stars.

The old, evil potion was so powerful that it did not quickly release Urub from its suffocating grip, but eventually it lost the battle against the potion of light.

So great was the delight and the joy Qahwaw brought the denizens of Urub that they continued to drink from this fountain of light. Every time, for generations to come, the people of Urub celebrated the age of the light by tasting from the deep magic of Qahwaw every time they met.

Coffee in magic clothing

Recast in the language of fairy tales, the very same effects of coffee that first seemed to be rather unimpressive are actually anything but. Cast in the epic language of the battle of light against dark, it actually becomes hard no to be impressed by the awesome powers of Qahwaw (read: coffee). Notice that I did not change the basic facts about coffee. I changed the language, and suddenly coffee becomes a potion worthy of novels like the Lord of the Rings.

What can we do?

To summarise what I have written so far: the world is sated with magic, which we pine for, but due to mystery being a necessary condition for the feeling of magic, we are unable tap into it. Naturalism is wedded to understanding, and we experience understanding as demystification.

What to do? There are at least two strategies toward resolving this precarious under-appreciation of the wonders we are surrounded by: recasting and recalibration. Recasting is what I used in my previous rewriting of the story of coffee. Rewrite a narrative about a natural occurrence in a more mysterious language, and the perception of magic will most certainly follow. However, there are at least three issues with this approach, opportunity cost, counter-factual memories, and vulnerability toward manipulation. The opportunity-cost factor eludes to the simple fact that rewriting a story takes time. If we were to produce mysterious interpretation of everything we read, our output and intake of news, information and literature would definitely go down. Counter factual memories relate to the potential that we might retain the mysterious version of a story better due to the arousal we experience.In the worst case we would only remember what caused our awe, but not the natural explanation upon which the magical tale rests. Third, we might become amenable to emotional manipulation. The issue here is not that we feel aroused, rather that we might not pay attention to whether the natural base story is actually sound.

So while recasting is appealing due to its simplicity, it might come at too high a price, at least when it is invoked on a regular basis. Which brings us to the second strategy: recalibration. The idea here is to use mental exercises that change our perception the world. Such exercises can be rather simple and they can be applied to a wide range of situations, for instance reacting more rational in heated discussions or increasing one’s happiness and reducing one’s depression level at the same time. The appealing aspect of a recalibration of our minds is that they can have a lasting effects, especially when exercised over an extended time period. Opportunity cost would thus be a minor issue. Notice that the goal of such exercises would not be to to induce alternative, mysterious views and memories. Rather, as in the case of happiness, the goal would be to imbue us with a sense of wonder, while not impairing our other faculties at all.

By aid of happiness exercises one strives for being more content while still retaining a rational and critical appreciation of one’s life. In the same spirit, the exercises I have in mind, would imbue us with an appreciation of the many natural wonders we are surrounded by, while preserving our rational and critical understanding of the facts of these wonders. I admit, I am not aware of any “magic-enhancing” exercise in the literature, but given the above examples and the enormous progress we have made in the filed of psychology in the last decades, I am quite optimistic that we could devise such exercises once we pout our mind to this project.

Whether such an undertaking actually would unlock major portions of the magic of the natural world to us, I do not know, but judging from the strong thirst we have for magic, it is worthwhile pursuing. After all, would it not be better to appreciate the magic of what already exists and to build upon it, instead of perpetually escaping into seemingly more magical dream worlds?

References

J. K. Rowling pocketed over one billion US Dollars with her saga about Harry Potter: Pertinent Forbes figures were reported by the Telegraph.

The Chronicles of Narnia were turned into blockbusters: Detailed box-office revenue numbers can be found on Wikipedia.

Magicians play for sold-out houses: For instance, the performances of the duo Penn & Teller are frequently sold out.

Sinister, lethal witch hunts: This topic has been regularly monitored by the Center for Inquiry.

Magical objects in the Harry-Potter universe: A comprehensive list of such objects can be found on Wikipedia.

the art that, by use of spells, supposedly invokes supernatural powers to influence events”, “any mysterious or extraordinary quality or power”: Taken verbatim from Collins Online Dictionary.

Magical thinking relates to the phenomenon that even secular people invoke magical thinking in every-day life: For a comprehensive overview on this topic see Matthew Hutson’s The seven Laws of Magical Thinking (2012).

Shiota et al.’s findings from 2007 suggest: See Michelle N. Shiota, Dacher Keltner, and Amanda Mossman, “The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept” in Cognition and Emotion (2007).

As Fredrickson summarises their findings: See Barabara L. Fredrickson’s “Positive Emotions Broaden and Build”, to appear in Advances on Experimental Social Psychology.

The latter effect is one of the recent findings of Rudd et al.: See Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being”, in Psychological Science (2012).

Also, when awe is accompanied with moral elevation: See Jennifer A. Silvers and Jonathan Haidt, “Moral Elevation Can Induce Nursing”, in Emotion (2008).

Oxytocin might also speed up wound healing: See Jean-Philippe Gouin et al., “Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing” in Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010).

the neuro-biological research of emotion and internal reward mechanisms tied to them is in its infancy:See Lisa Feldman Barrett et al., “The Experience of Emotion” in Annual Review of Psychology (2007).

Poisoning your adversary was developed to an art form: Directors commentary (Shekhar Kapur) on the Blu-ray version of the film Elizabeth (1998).

Cure Light Wounds: A flash card for this wand can be found at www.obsidianportal.com.

superstition, intolerance and abuses …” Quote taken from the Wikipedia article about the Age of Enlightenment.

he was purported to have drunk …”: Quote taken from the Wikipedia article about Voltaire.

way had been cleared by the religious wars …”: Quote taken from Tom Standage’s “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (2005).

Wine, liquor, beer, and cider: Cider is, unfortunately, not covered in Standage’s book. Insight on the history of cider is provided in R. K. French’s “The History and Virtues of Cyder”, (2010, republished).

Disease-laden well water: How bad well water in big cities actually was is graphically conveyed in Steven Johnson’s “The Ghost Map” (2006).

between 1680 and 1730 …”;“were well lit, …”;“convenient and respectable …”;“Those around St. James’s …”; “around sixty London coffeehouses …”: Quotes taken from “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (see above).

One of which actually prompted Newton to finally publish his ground-breaking work on mechanics and his findings might well have followed him into his grave: For a thorough discussion of the events leading up to the publication of Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” see James Gleick’s biography “Isaac Newton” (2003)

Establishment of The Weekly Newes: See Phil Barber’s “A Brief History of Newspapers” (2012).

Lectures were given and experiments were shown: See, for instance, Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air” (2009) and Wikipedia’s article on penny universities.

Soft drinks: A brief history of soft drinks, written by Mary Bellis, can be found at about.com.

A city with ten times larger populace: See Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” (2007) and Luís Bettencourt et al.’s “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2011).

Revolution was set in motion at a café in Paris: See Standage’s “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (2005)

from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries: See Standage’s “A History of the World in Six Glasses” (2005).

We are healing the sick in truly magical numbers and with ditto efficacy: Harold Kroto, Talk at Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0, 11′ 25” The Science Network (2008).

and future technology will do: See, for instance Ali E. Aliev, Yuri N. Gartstein, Ray H. Baugham, “Mirage effect from thermally modulated transparent carbon nanotube sheets”, in Nanotechnology (2011) and Moti Fridman et al., “Demonstration of temporal cloaking” in Nature (2012)

Naturalism is wedded to understanding, and we experience understanding as demystification: Richard Dawkins addresses this (and his disagreement with this thinking) in length in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow” (1998).

we might retain the mysterious version of a story better due to the arousal we experience: See Mara Mather and Matthew Sutherland, “Disentangling the Effects of Arousal and Valence on Memory for Intrinsic Details” in Emotion Review (2009).

reacting more rational in heated discussions: See Julia Galef, “How to want to change your mind” (2012).

increasing one’s happiness and reducing one’s depression level and especially when exercised over an extended time period: See Martin E. P. Seligman et al., “Positive Psychology Progress” in American Psychologist (2005).