Magic from the bottom of a hole

One of the interesting things about being at the bottom of a hole (emotionally speaking) is how hard it becomes to think anything other than the hole exists. There’s a feature of human psychology underpinning this. When we are in any given emotional state, we tend to recall most clearly the other times when we have felt that way – which in turn tends to reinforce the mood. For this reason (and others) it is as well not to do exam revision whilst drunk but sit the exam whilst perfectly sober.

Much of our thinking is associative in nature. A significant amount of what occurs betwixt the ears is not a rational development of logical and causal links, and it is worth grasping the implications of this. You may be familiar with Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate when they heard a bell ring. We all do this, and there is no inherent logic. We feel associations between things that turn up together. There may be no real relationship between the bell and the food, but if they seem to correspond, our bodies will start to assume kinds of causality. Much of our ‘thinking’ has this bodily quality and it informs our choices and expectations.

If you can persuade a creature or person to do one wholly irrelevant thing in the hopes of getting the coincidental outcome they appeared to get one time… that’s generally called superstitious behaviour. Touching your lucky socks, or doing a little pigeon dance before tapping the bird feeder. Not because there’s a causal link, not because it makes any real odds but because the first time we did the pigeon dance and hit the button, some grain appeared. Maybe we aren’t sure whether it was the dance or the button that got the result. Maybe we are a bit afraid that if we test it, the universe will be cross with us, and decide not to deliver. Obsessive compulsive behaviours are one possible outcome here.

For the person interested in magic, this can go several ways. Are we practicing a superstitious action that makes no difference? Or are we tapping into the greatest bit of superstitious magic there is, and getting an entirely real placebo effect? Or is something else happening?

Any kind of superstitious behaviour has the potential to give us the self fulfilling prophecy. This is especially true for the person in a hole. If you already think that everything is shit and you are doomed, the odds of pulling a bunch of metaphorical flowers out of your equally metaphorical magician’s hat, are not good. Belief can shape our chances. The person who is in a profound state of disbelief cuts off certain options for themselves. The person who thinks they have lost already is unlikely to come up with a winning move. When you can’t win because there is just no way you can win, that circular trap can take some breaking. It’s just as true that imagining you are all powerful and invincible does not make you bullet proof in any literal sense. Overconfidence can be just as dangerous as a sense of doom.

We think with our bodies. Quite a lot of what happens in our brains has already done some of its shaping up other places, in our central nervous systems, and our conditioned physical reactions to stimuli. You can teach the body to react in ways the mind finds abhorrent, and it is worth recognising this as one of the features of our animal selves. That animal self tends to have very basic needs and wants, though. If you can, snuggle it up in a warm place with some decent food, and let it have a rest, then tomorrow it may not be quite so certain that it is standing at the bottom of a really big hole.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “Magic from the bottom of a hole

  • angharadlois

    Very wise words, which I shall bookmark and revisit at some point in the future, when I know they will be just what I need to read.

    Incidentally, I love the question “…are we tapping into the greatest bit of superstitious magic there is, and getting an entirely real placebo effect?” I am fascinated by the placebo effect. It tends to be used as a throwaway dismissal – no significant outcomes; just a placebo effect – but the very fact that the mind can affect the body is pretty amazing, really. Though it shouldn’t come as a surprise!

    • Nimue Brown

      There’s also plenty of evidence out there that one of the things that really improves your chances of surviving pretty much anything, is your belief that you will. However, given the lack of commercial applications, this stuff doesn’t get a lot of attention.

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