Why We Can’t Let Go of Magic

True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), and I think psychics are just very good intuitionists . . . so why do I love magic realism and fantasy? Why is this genre thriving in books, games, and film?

Here’s one of many reasons. We know from cognitive and brain science that we have several brains. In the central brain stem resides the amygdala which governs our limbic system which governs our emotions (this is explained well in Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block). This part of the brain is geared toward survival. It reacts instantaneously to fuzzy perceptions. It knows only three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. It sees a snakelike object in the grass and prompts you to jump or shoot. You jump, and THEN you take a closer look and your cerebral cortex says, “Oh, that’s not a snake. It’s a stick.” What you just experienced is an amygdala brain take over.

Evolutionarily, the cerebral neocortex developed later. This part surrounds the primitive brain and is where you do all your rational, creative, sorting, organizing, and planning thinking. It supplies all kinds of stories for this amygdala takeover.

Bane says it’s like your brain is a bus with two drivers. Generally, your neocortex is driving the bus. We’ll call her Neo (heh, heh). When you get stressed, the amygdala (we’ll call her Amy), gives Neo a karate chop, grabs the wheel, and starts driving like crazy, careening wildly from side-to-side, and running over little old ladies and the like.

Now, Neo has no idea this has just happened. She sort of goes catatonic. Like sleeping beauty awakened by a kiss, she only snaps out of it when things calm down. Drowsy-eyed, she takes control of the bus, and when the police stop her to ask her about the little old lady, she makes up all kinds of stories, like an alien abducted her, or her husband made her do it.

The point is, a part of our brain still sees the world in terms of magic – it sees ghosts in the flickers of peripheral vision, it sees zombies in that unexpected manikin you encounter in the attic, and it sees a weeping woman in the snow-capped signpost caught by your low-beams at night.

But that’s not the only thing science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism do. They also help us explore our deepest fears in safe ways. Bruno Bettelheim, in his book The Uses of Enchantment, famously asserted that the sanitizing of fairy tales and folktales left children less equipped to handle the stress of life. Who knew, for example, that in Cinderella, the wicked sisters cut off their toes to fit their feet into the shoe? The grimness of Grimm’s stories gives children the stamina to deal with real life. These genres also feed our need for a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves, and to the inherent interconnectedness of all things, but that’s a topic for another time.

In case I insulted all the ghost hunters and psychics out there, I feel I should add a disclaimer: I don’t disbelieve in anything completely. I truly think anything is possible, but not exactly probable, so I look for the rational explanation first. I can’t tell you, for example, how many times I’ve heard sound bounce in unexpected ways to create the illusion of thumping up above when it’s really coming from next door.

I must also say that I see the possible danger of grandiosity, narcissism, and avoidance when people get too caught up in the nick-knacks of new age stores and start asserting their psychic or shamanistic powers. However, to those friends of mine who frequent such stores and make such assertions, I know that radio waves, microwaves, and other forms of communication that are undetectable to the human eye and ear, so I humbly admit that I know there is more to everything than meets the eye. So keep honing your craft whatever it is, because above all, I believe in the inner wisdom of all things and the magic of the atom.

Leave a Reply