Look into the image above for a few seconds. What do you see? I see a slow rotation. It seems obvious. But there is no real movement. This is not an embedded video. The image is not moving, your mind is moving it. Illusions like this are basically misperceptions. They are the products of a convincing deception which leads to sincere belief. Unfortunately, sincerity does not guarantee validity. In other words, what you would swear is true, may not be.
Visual illusions are just one class of illusion. Anytime a contrived thing or a realistic substitute is mistaken for the “real” thing, you have a kind of illusion. Placebos are a perfect example of this. In the classic placebo test, what you think you have (aspirin) is really a fake (sugar pill). In the visual illusion above, we believe the fake movement because it is carefully orchestrated with visual cues. In the aspirin placebo test, the sugar pill may be stamped with the same code and colored to mimic the real thing. BUT if our belief is strong enough, regardless of what it is based on, the results are often the same as the real thing: we may get dizzy from the fake motion and we may have our headaches cured with a sugar pill. Put simply, it is often the sincerity of belief and not the object of belief that provides the cure.
CRYSTAL “HEALING” – DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
Did the Magic Crystals heal your depression and your anxiety or was it simply your BELIEF in the power of the crystals that did the trick? How can you ever know the difference? Does it really matter? Well, how much did you pay for the crystal therapy? The propensity to believe in unprovable claims of healing and to disregard the prevalence of the placebo effect and the power of naked belief is not limited to New Age practitioners and their gullible followers. Consider the case of Franz Mesmer.
Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) believed illness came from misaligned magnetic forces, so he developed a “treatment” that involved transmitting magnetic force to the patient through a series of complex and elaborate gestures and touch, not unlike modern day faith healers.
Mesmer’s patients proclaimed themselves cured of the same vague hysterical conditions that Freud encountered a few years later: blindness, numbness, paralysis and convulsive fits with no organic basis. Now known as “conversion disorders,” these hysterical illnesses are basically a physical manifestation of anxiety. In other words they are purely psychological so the”cure” can be purely psychological. Eventually Mesmer was discredited and it was affirmed that the real healing factor was the patients’ belief in the cure, not the cure itself. In other words, it was the power of suggestion not the power of magnetism that stopped the symptoms.
THE AMAZING RANDI
James Randi is a former professional magician and famous escape artist who turned into a devoted skeptic and debunker. Randi devoted his life to challenging and disproving paranormal claims. His first step was to reclassify himself as an “illusionist” not a magician. What he and other professionals do on stage, Randi admits, is not paranormal, it is very skilled sleight-of-hand, it is an illusion. In one of his most famous de-bunkings, Randi exposed the renowned Faith Healer Peter Popoff.
During the healing service, Reverend Popoff would reveal personal information of supplicants that he had supposedly received from God. Unfortunately for Popoff’s ministry, Randi’s investigators detected radio messages during this divine revelation. Turns out the personal information was coming from Popoff’s wife, not God. But it was a very convincing illusion while it lasted and Popoff made a lot of money.
In addition to faith healers, Randi has challenged spoon benders, aura readers, dowsers, astrologers and famous psychics like Sylvia Browne. No one has passed the test and proved their paranormal claims under Randi’s controlled conditions. All they have succeeded in doing is separating the naive from their money.
Following this logic to it’s conclusion, ANYTIME we are psychologically “healed” by belief in unseen or unknowable forces – whether we believe in crystals, voodoo, Reiki, faith healing, eating fried chicken before a game to improve your batting average, Jesus, God, Zeus, the Virgin Mary, Vishnu, Odin or Anubis, its is fair to question if it is the thing itself – as we sincerely believe – or simply belief itself, independent of the object of belief – that effects our cure. The inescapable irony of this is that we must believe the deception or it doesn’t work. In other words, if you break the illusion, if you see through to the truth – that fried chicken has nothing to do with hitting a baseball – then your confidence is gone and you have a hitting slump. It is not that the superstition failed, or Jesus failed, or Vishnu failed….your belief failed.
In summary, evidence and common sense strongly suggests that there is no force emanating from the healing object to the healing subject – what is happening is a self-contained belief system that doesn’t require an outside power, only a sincere belief in one. My skeptical stance on psychological healing is that I assume the placebo effect – the power of belief alone – is in play in these situations by default. My challenge is the same as Randi’s, if you believe your particular magic works, prove it.