Yesterday I talked about the skeptic tests of magic. Skeptic literature is valuable, but focuses on entertainers and showmen rather than traditional, cultural systems of magic. Do living magic traditions have better results?
In some cases, yes.
Science has investigated a handful of traditional magical techniques, and found that some produce results. I’ve chosen three examples that have particularly clear evidence. There’s scientific consensus that these rituals do work – but not always how they work.
I’ve mentioned tumo before, but it deserves a more detailed explanation. Tumo is a practice used by Himalayan mystics to conjure heat. It allows them to go outdoors in freezing conditions with only a thin cotton garment.
In 1982, with the cooperation of the Dalai Lama, researchers from the Harvard Medical School tested tumo practitioners for the first time. They recorded body temperature changes of up to 17 degrees. Later, they made video documentation of monks using their body heat to dry ice cold wet sheets, and staying outdoors all night in temperatures that reached zero. The monks slept comfortably with no shivering, no shelter, no huddling, and no protective clothing or blankets.
Meditation mastery is a prerequisite for practicing tumo. Learning the technique involves ritual preparation, physical movements, complex visualizations and specific breathing techniques. If we define magic as the use of ritual or ceremony to cause real effects in the world, it would be hard not to call tumo magic.
Science has an explanation for how tumo works: biofeedback. Our bodies routinely use environmental feedback to adjust how they operate. On a hot day, the body produces less heat; on a cold day, it works to produce more. In this view, tumo represents a method of highjacking the normal biofeedback system and forcing the body to produce more heat.
If you use a cheap thermistor and focus on making your skin temperature go up, you can probably raise it a few degrees yourself.
But that’s one of the most important lessons: only a few degrees. Other than the ritual practices of tumo, there is no documented case producing such dramatic results. Western medicine offers an excellent explanation for how tumo works, but has yet to develop any tool for doing it as effectively as mystical ritual.
Vodou, a religion of Haiti and west Africa, is known for its strong magical tradition. It’s where we get the idea of the zombie. But actual zombies created by sorcerers are different than what you see in movies.
Vodou tradition has long held that sorcerers have the ability to curse people with a death-like trance. The victim’s family thinks they’re dead, holds a funeral and buries them. Later the magician digs them up and resuscitates them, but not as their normal self – rather, in a state of total submission. This is the zombie, who can be used as a servant or for physical labor by the magician.
Scientists assumed this was superstition because all the reports of actual zombies were hearsay. Then came the case of Clairvius Narcisse. Clairvius was declared dead by two attending physicians at a modern clinic in Haiti. 16 years later he returned to his family very much alive.
That Clairvius is the real Clairvius is beyond question. He was subjected to a barrage of tests, answered questions only the real Clairvius could answer, and was recognized by multiple friends and family members.
Clairvius describes his time as a zombie as a state of delirium. He was one of several zombies forced to labor on a farm. They were fed a hallucinogenic plant, datura, with their meals to keep them in a foggy, obedient state. Eventually one of the zombies killed their overseer and they were able to escape.
What remains controversial is how exactly Clairvius was put into a death-like condition that fooled Western doctors, slowed his metabolism to a crawl, yet was still reversible later.
Canadian botanist Wade Davis went to Haiti to answer that question. He was convinced the Haitian sorcerers must use a drug of some kind. After procuring a number of different versions of zombie powder – a magic powder sprinkled on the victim or left in their clothing or shoes – he famously declared that the active ingredient is tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in fish.
However, Davis’ claim is controversial. Tetrodotoxin is indeed able to induce a death-like coma, but the idea of someone recovering from it without brain damage is incredulous. More to the point, researchers have never successfully reproduced the zombie condition with tetrodotoxin.
Does this mean that zombification is actually supernatural? No, not at all. It might mean that some other ingredient is what does it.
But it is another case where traditional magical ceremonies, however they might be explained, succeed in their intended effect.
3:/ Death Curse
One of the earliest types of spells to be verified by science is the use of curses to murder people. The most widely studied cases come from Australia. Aboriginal tribes there believe that if a magical executioner – a kurdaitcha – points a ritually prepared bone at someone, the person will die within days.
As early as the 1940s anthropologists noted cases where the victim actually did die.
Verifying this was difficult, again because many cases were hearsay and also because alternate causes of death were hard to rule out. However, verifiable examples exist and the phenomenon is now generally accepted by scientists. Science explains the efficacy of the death rituals in terms of belief: if you believe the ritual will kill you, it very well might.
How this works is not as well understood. There is a debate whether people can literally die out of fear (they are so scared of the curse that their mind kills their body), or if their belief that they are going to die leads to risky behavior (refusing food and water) that kills them.
(Note: I don’t offer curses, sorry.)
If you believe there is some supernatural, invisible force in the world, these examples don’t help you at all. Everyone one of them is best explained in terms of natural, material mechanisms. In tumo it’s the body’s unconscious self-regulation; in zombification it may be poisons and drugs; and in death rituals it’s the victim’s own psychology.
But is that a reason to dismiss magic?
If I can use your psychology to cause you to fall in love, isn’t that a powerful spell? If I can slow my metabolism to last long periods without oxygen, isn’t that worth learning?
I view magic ritual as a technology. It was developed to produce results, and it’s often damn good at doing so. Sometimes science has developed alternate tools of delivering the same results, and sometimes it hasn’t. But if the ritual does what it’s supposed to do, it’s a useful tool.
It’s important not to over-generalize. Just because the ceremony to make a zombie works doesn’t mean the ceremony to cure cancer works. Just because pointing a cursed bone in someone’s face kills them, doesn’t mean it would kill them from a thousand miles away. But these examples show that magical ceremonies can have profound, real, measurable effects.
When someone says magic has been disproven, they’re factually wrong.
I practice ritual magic and I’ve gotten good results for 15 years. I’d love to create a real spell for you, or as a gift for someone else. Have a look for yourself.