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Archive for August, 2013

More on Placebos ….

I wrote recently on the way we craft rituals to invest objects with meanings that can provide us with psychological support.  It’s no more weird to collect crystals to improve your mood than it is build cathedrals out of beautiful stone and colored glass.

Now I want to reemphasize that this support often really is due to suggestion, or to aesthetic resonance– not to the interaction of the object’s molecular structure with some sort of aura or higher self.

First, some links to authors who make the point with reference to crystals:  You can use their references to find the original research.

And why– if pretty rocks do in fact help some people feel good– does this kind of research matter?

I like to pay the witches and folk healers of former times the compliment of believing that they were (many of them) actually serious about their craft, trying to find out actual remedies based on accumulated wisdom and experience– they did notice certain healing or analgesic properties of particular plants, for instance.  Many of their practices and researches were blind alleys, just as the male pseudoscience of alchemy proved to be; but these efforts, even when initially based on wrong premises or information, did eventually lead us to the biological, chemical, and physical knowledge we now have.

To the extent that patriarchal culture made a point of forbidding women formal education, and of suppressing folk practices as “devilry,” it prevented people from developing folk remedies into formal sciences.  A result is that women’s folk practices became relegated to the realm of superstition, and opposed to science, which was in the hands of men.  The phrase “old wives’ tale” makes this vividly clear.  The power dynamics involved conveyed to everyone that no knowledge is valid which hasn’t won the approval of educated men– when the real point should have been that any knowledge is underdeveloped unless it is tested and refined in an ongoing way.

If you doubt that much harm has been done, much knowledge lost, by the imperialistic defeat of other cultures’ accumulated folk wisdom, have a look at Anne Cameron’s classic, The Daughters of Copper Woman.  She describes a powerful blend of spiritual impulse and technological know-how in the folk practices of the Native Americans on Vancouver Island, and conveys powerfully the loss of generations of ingenuity that follows, as European colonizers bring with them their assumption that they know best how life should be lived.

It’s more than understandable to me that many women, in reclaiming their own insights, should feel wary of the scientific establishment.  Germaine Greer pointed out decades ago that women distrust men’s appeals to “reason,” because they know that these conceal a foundation of “realpolitik.”  The men of reason have, in the past, concluded that women are inferior, less intelligent, penis envying beings, given to levels of hormonal hysteria that preclude their participation in the public realm.  The men of reason suppressed midwifery, kept women’s health in their own hands, and largely restricted themselves to telling women what to do, not helping them learn how their own bodies worked.  The shock over productions of “The Vagina Monologues” reveals the extent to which the world feels threatened even by women’s being able to name and talk about their own bodies.

But the enemy we fight shouldn’t be critical thinking.  In fact, critical thinking is on our side in the long run, if we accept the task of using it for ourselves.  The enemy is the contempt for women’s experience that leads us to ignore or suppress what we know, rather than trying to understand and build on it.

It’s really okay if the proximity of a certain stone helps you feel more peaceful.  That this is the effect of “suggestion” doesn’t make it bad, or useless, or unworthy of study.  Hypnotic suggestion can relieve stress and pain, and there is a science to understanding how that works.  Colors, sounds, scents, all affect us emotionally, and this is a reality we can develop and use to our benefit.  Looking at waves on the beach is soothing to me, and if the practice saves me the need for an anti-anxiety medicine, so much the better.  If not, it’s good that tested medicines are there, too.

What’s not okay is to invoke science by talking about the electric properties of minerals, and then shift gears into the nonverifiable (and sometimes nonsensical) language of “spiritual energy”  in order to bolster shaky claims about a product you’re selling.   Never mind what male scientists will think of us; what will we think of ourselves if we base whole belief systems on sloppy thinking?  As a friend of mine asked, why pull the wool over our own eyes?

Patriarchy has tended to set intuition and feeling against reason.  It’s up to the modern witches and scientists to heal the split– as, for instance, when we respect what we feel when we hold a stone, then use the tools of reason to understand what is happening.