Wow. Here's a fascinating article
from the NYT on research that, if borne out by further studies, would explain so much about how magic "really" works.
The article begins by discussing fairly well-known research that shows that people with "social connections" often fare better when ill than do those who are lonely. Then, it offers a biophysical explanation:The most significant finding was the discovery of "mirror neurons," a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement[,] and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.
Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people'’s posture, vocal pacing[,] and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.
Such coordination of emotions, cardiovascular reactions[,] or brain states between two people has been studied in mothers with their infants, marital partners arguing[,] and even among people in meetings. Reviewing decades of such data, Lisa M. Diamond and Lisa G. Aspinwall, psychologists at the University of Utah, offer the infelicitous term "a mutually regulating psychobiological unit" to describe the merging of two discrete physiologies into a connected circuit. To the degree that this occurs, Dr. Diamond and Dr. Aspinwall argue, emotional closeness allows the biology of one person to influence that of the other.
About a year ago, I read The Earth Path
by Starhawk. In spite, as my brilliant friend Elizabeth
noted, of a tendency to imply that urban pagans are somehow not quite "real" pagans, the book is a fascinating discussion of many topics, one of which is the ability of trees to communicate through underground fungal nets that have only recently been discovered. Reading the NYT article that describes groups of people as a "psychobiological unit," I couldn't help shouting, "Eureka! People are trees! A crowd is a forest!"
More importantly, however, I think that the physical presence of mirror neurons, "a widely dispersed class of brain cells . . . [that] track the emotional flow, movement[,] and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person," explains how a great deal of what we call magic and "energy work," works. Of course, Clake's third law
is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Clarke forgot to add that any previously-undetected biological element is similarly indistinguishable from magic.
I can affect the people that I'm with if I'm able to moderate my own physical and emotional state. I can impact the way that a meeting works if I'm able to project my state of consciousness to others and, at the same time, be aware of and know how to ground the impact that others have on me. (And, of course, this helps to explain why the so-called Rule of Three works, as well.) I, like many witches, have been to Reclaiming classes that teach us that being able to ground (a specific magical practice described, inter alia
, in Starhawk's The Spiral Dance
) is the most important part of working magic and the most important part of our spiritual practice. Now, we know, on a physical basis, why this is so. If magic is the ability to change consciousness at will, the person who can control her own consciousness and then deliberately project it to the mirror neurons of others is the person who can work magic.
How does magic work at a distance? Not clear yet. But it does, and I've little doubt that someday someone will figure it out. Meanwhile, there's something that I love about studies like this.
A second interesting, and deeply practical, point in the NYT article is this one: [A]s all too many people with severe chronic diseases know, loved ones can disappear, leaving them to bear their difficulties in lonely isolation. Social rejection activates the very zones of the brain that generate, among other things, the sting of physical pain. Matthew D. Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberg of U.C.L.A. (writing in a chapter in "“Social Neuroscience: People Thinking About People," M.I.T. Press, 2005) have proposed that the brain'’s pain centers may have taken on a hypersensitivity to social banishment because exclusion was a death sentence in human prehistory. They note that in many languages the words that describe a "“broken heart" from rejection borrow the lexicon of physical hurt.
So when the people who care about a patient fail to show up, it may be a double blow: the pain of rejection and the deprivation of the benefits of loving contact. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University who studies the effects of personal connections on health, emphasizes that a hospital patient'’s family and friends help just by visiting, whether or not they quite know what to say.
This part of the article hit home with me in a pretty hard way. I was diagnosed with breast cancer just two years after making a major career change, picking up my life, and moving to a new area and a less-that-warm-and-fuzzy new job. I'd been working way, way, way too hard proving myself at the new career to make any new friends. I'd long since broken off contact with my dysfunctional and abusive family. My old friends were hours away. My commitment to my job hadn't yet allowed me to link up with the coven that, today, provides me with so much emotional support. My lover left me immediately upon my diagnosis, well before I began the rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, not to mention before I was healed from the surgery. I was, except for my wonderful Son, abandoned.
And I took the chemotherapy and radiation very, very hard. My doctors kept saying that they couldn't understand why an otherwise healthy young woman couldn't tolerate the treatments any better than I did. I doubted my own abilities, as I suffered so severely through the aftermath of surgery, chemo, and radition. But one afternoon, a group of my "old" friends from the life that I'd left behind, drove hours up to D.C. to be with me and dragged me to tea at the Willard. Sitting there, surrounded by love and gossip and warmth, I ate more than I'd eaten in months and went home to sleep better than I'd slept in a very long time. Was it magic? Yes. Was it biology? Yes. Did it save my life? I believe that it did.
Does it explain why visiting the sick or playing the harp for them or doing energy work on them works? Does a mirror neuron mirror what's going on in another's neurons?