thunderstorm bad stronger than good

So here we are in Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival gorging on theater. Last night, we saw “The Tempest”, Shakespeare’s early (first?) version of sci-fi. The story is simple enough.

The Duke of Milan, Prospero, is deposed by his sister Antonia with the active support of Alonso, the king of Naples. He is cast adrift on a boat, together with his young daughter Miranda. They land on an uninhabited island, where the king immerses himself in the study of the occult.

Years later, when Alonso returns from Tunis, where he just married off his daughter to the local king, a strong wind, generated by the spirit Ariel which had been employed by Prospero, blows their ship off course and the whole entourage, including the usurper Antonia and Alonso’s son and heir Ferdinand, is washed ashore that island. The end is quite predictable for a Shakespeare drama: The king’s son Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda; Alonso, king of Naples, is full of remorse and yields the kingdom to his son and his new bride Miranda. They all sail away in a joyful voyage and calm seas.

If not for linguistic flourishes, beautiful poetry, and coinage of modern-sounding terms (“circumstances create strange bedfellows”, “’tis a brave new world”), one could understandably find the play quaint—to be charitable. The enduring popularity of “The Tempest” raises an interesting question.


Why do people believe in magic?

The answer to this question probably has to do with the way our brain works. On the trick level of magic, we are entertained by the magician who pulls coins out of thin air or a rabbit out of a hat. We know that this is legerdemain or sleight of hand. The neurological basis is what is called in psychology “narrowness of perception”. What it means is that our brain filters out many extraneous stimuli so as to concentrate on a few important ones. The magician exploits this by drawing our attention to one place while performing his trick in a different one.

The survival value of this type of trickery is quite obvious; better pay attention to the lion gunning for you, and ignore the deer that under different circumstances could have been dinner for the whole family. In fact, that deer probably didn’t even register in your consciousness; this is called “inattentional blindness”, and is the basis for all magic shows.

But what about the more profound magic aspect of magic? How could Shakespeare’s “gullible” audience in 1612 (when the Tempest was written) believe in a storm raised by Ariel, the spirit? How could King James I (of the famed James translation of the Bible), who became King of England in 1600, a renaissance man of his time, busy himself with occult “science” and write the authoritative books on the subject?


Magical thinking

Children easily accept magical explanations of natural phenomena. And why shouldn’t they? The younger they are, the less experience they have with the “physical” world that adults learn to take for granted. If you never heard the physical explanation of a thunder, wouldn’t an “explanation” that it is the roar of a deity residing in the heavens (God, Zeus, Zoroaster, whatever) sound quite plausible?

In fact, magical thinking permeates all ancient literature. Gilgamesh, the semi-legendary Sumerian king, conversed quite animatedly with the Gods. Was it unbelievable at the time? The epic of Gilgamesh was copied many thousands of time and disseminated throughout the Middle East for thousands of years. People of that period had no time and no concept of reading for entertainment’s sake; they took the story at face value. Could the Israelites take the biblical stories seriously? Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent and sees three angels walking down the road. He invites them to lunch when it turns out that one of them is God, himself. He feeds them and sends them on their way—no fuss, no big deal. If the people did not believe it, no injunction from God, prophet, or king could force them to accept it as truth.


Can we write it off to ignorance?

This is too facile. Ancient stories tell us about shrewd farmers, about brilliant thinkers, about inventive kings and queens. It is not credible to ascribe to them such profound naïveté.

Part of the explanation of why these magical stories were accepted, lies in the way our brain works (yes, again). Animal learning behavior, including our own learning, is based on finding patterns. If the lion goes out to hunt at dusk, then after a few repetitions, the prey (deer, humans) will learn this pattern and become super vigilant. When we see something repeated again and again, we learn it and recognize it as a pattern.

When events don’t have a readily observable pattern—we impose one on them. When our knowledge of how complex natural phenomena work is woefully deficient, magic will do quite nicely in making up a pattern. When a few details are missing in making the pattern complete, our brain fills in the gap. When words contain the first and last letters, we are quite adept at recognizing the whole word.

As the world becomes more and more explainable based on science and frightening natural events become explicable, it becomes harder for us to comprehend a world based on magic. In a way, it leaves me a bit sad. The awe-inspiring power of an erupting volcano and the heart-stopping sounds and sights of a rip-roaring thunder and lightning storm have lost their magic for many people who now understand the physical basis of these phenomena.

This knowledge can help us prepare ourselves for these potentially dangerous events, but it is far less colorful than imagining the gods throwing thunderbolts at each other. This is why upon entering the theater you need to check disbelief at the door and just let yourself get transported to the magical world of Shakespeare.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.