How to know the future?
From ancient times, people have been interested in divination practices such as astrology. Why? One obvious reason is to know the future. Why? From the evolutionary perspective, for survival purposes. It makes sense. Nowadays, most people feel secure in this left brain domain, so why they still are interested in astrology and future divination. Is it just an unconscious reflex? Superstition? Habit? Or something else. Neuroscience has one suggestion: to avoid uncertainty.
What is the uncertainty for?
To ensure your survival, your brain evolved to avoid one thing: uncertainty. As neuroscientist Beau Lotto (the author Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently) points out, if your ancestors wondered for too long whether that noise was a predator or not, you wouldn’t be here right now. Our brains are geared to make fast assumptions, and questioning them in many cases quite literally equates to death. No wonder we’re so hardwired for confirmation bias. No wonder we’d rather stick to the status quo than risk the uncertainty of a better political model, a fairer financial system, or a healthier relationship pattern. But here’s the catch: as our brains evolved toward certainty (left brain dominance), we simultaneously evolved away from creativity (right brain dominance) — that’s no coincidence; creativity starts with a question, with uncertainty, not with a cut and dried answer. To be creative, we have to unlearn millions of years of evolution. Creativity asks us to do that which is hardest: to question our assumptions, to doubt what we believe to be true. That is the only way to see differently. And if you think creativity is a chaotic and wild force, think again, says Beau Lotto. It just looks that way from the outside. The brain cannot make great leaps, it can only move linearly through mental possibilities. When a creative person forges a connection between two things that are, to your mind, so far apart, that’s a case of high-level logic. They have moved through steps that are invisible to you, perhaps because they are more open-minded and well-practised in questioning their assumptions. Creativity, it seems, is another (highly sophisticated) form of logic and it requires courage to experiment in the realm of unknown.
Astrology and divination give people a false sense of certainty as if there was some kind of transcendental guarantee of a certain, pre-existing future that can be read. Some people are just lazy or not courageous enough to think for themselves and create the life they want. They rather assume that there is a future already set by some kind of destiny or fate which can’t be changed and they live their lives on automatic, mindlessly, hoping.
Uncertainty also boosts learning
People want stability in personal and professional lives, but a Yale University study on cognition suggests that uncertainty boosts learning and we can benefit from volatility and instability. “Perhaps the most important insight from our study is that the function of the brain, as well as the nature of learning, is not ‘fixed’ but adapts according to the stability of the environment,” says Yale medical school professor of neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology Daeyeol Lee tells Quartz. What it means is that when life is predictable, our brains don’t need to do much but when there is a change, our brains work harder. So, be brave and seek out new conditions to stimulate your brain activity and learn more and experiment more. “When you enter a more novel and volatile environment, this might enhance the tendency for the brain to absorb more information,” professor suggests.
Is superstition is a way of mediating the future?
Many people are superstitious. They think that doing something ritualistic they can affect, control or influence the future outcomes. Also, it makes them feel less insecure and satisfies their inner need for stability and control. For example, in feng shui, many people believe that closing the toilet lid prevents any financial loss – meaning that they don’t flush the money (chi/energy) down the toilet. What it means, though, is that they believe that the toilet lid controls their finances, which obviously is nonsense. If only they could ask themselves a simple question: Who is in charge of my finances? Me or a toilet? They would snap out of this superstition and delusion and hopefully stop creating false problems for themselves in the first place. (I completely understand that some people like to close the toilet lid for aesthetic reasons – that’s a different matter.) Another example, people are worried that when they get a new wallet or purse, throwing away the old one can affect their money matters and career. Again, they give away their personal power (and common sense) to a material object. They think that external physical things or resources have power over their inner resources. It’s not the lack of resources that is the root of problems – it’s the lack of resourcefulness that is the problem.
Superstition is a false problem. What to do about it?
The problem with superstition is that once you’ve primed yourself with a negative belief or false problem, it’s difficult to get it out of your mind and your magic or mythic thinking (read below). It’s a classic example of nocebo (negative thinking and expectation) versus placebo (positive thinking and expectation). For survival reasons, negative or fatalistic thinking is more charged because life is at stake. I’m often asked what to do when one is being brainwashed with superstition or false problems. Firstly, recognise it as such – it is a false problem. Secondly, transcend and shift to a higher level of thinking ie logical, rational, common sense, scientific etc. Thirdly, recognise and choose a healthy power dynamic ie mind over matter – little trinkets don’t have power over you. EFT (emotional freedom technique)/tapping is another way of deleting unwanted beliefs, thoughts and behaviours. Of course, we live in a physical reality and certain things have influence over us ie air pollution, weather, water quality, electro-smog, geopathic stress, etc but if you remember that you are resourceful and creative you’ll find ways to mitigate and moderate those unhealthy influences. Human history is full of accounts of people who overcome the most adverse circumstances and illnesses.
Why do people subscribe to false beliefs and superstitions in the first place?
What is a belief? A belief is a perception of how things work. Hundreds of years ago, people didn’t know how basic things work so they speculated and imagined all kinds of explanations. Also, they mixed up all kinds of assumptions and erroneous thinking – pure chance, correlation and causation. For example, a sixteenth-century peasant walks down the road and a black cat crosses his path. He doesn’t think too much about it. But the next day, he has some bad luck, he gets ill or loses his chicken, etc. Naturally, he wants to know why suddenly he had such bad luck, what might have caused it so he can prevent bad luck in the future. He remembers the black pussycat crossing his path. Because this is the only explanation he can conjure that the black cat and bad luck happened in a short period of time he gives himself and the rest of the humanity (by spreading this meme) – a false problem and a widespread superstition. Not long ago, humanity believed that the Earth was flat and was the centre of the Universe. Children (conveniently) believe in Santa. As the REM sings: “if you believe they put a man on the moon”.
The difference between ‘magic’ and ‘mythic’ thinking
Magic depends primarily on where ‘miracle’ power is located. In magic, the capacity to perform miracles resides (‘magically’) in the self. For example, magic rituals were performed in order to improve future hunting endeavours.
• I do a rain dance, and it forces nature to rain.
• My father died, and I just recently wished him dead, then I caused his death.
• In Voodoo, I stick a pin in an image of the real person, the real person is actually hurt.
• In feng shui, if I close the toilet lid, this prevents financial losses.
Historically, by the time the mythic stage of human development began to emerge, humankind had begun to understand that it couldn’t really perform magic – but supernatural, transcendental, mythic Beings could ie God, Goddess, Spirit, Deity, chi, stars. If only I could find the correct ritual, or right prayer, or workable action which would please Spirits and have it magically intervene in history on my behalf, to make the crops grow, or make the rainfall, or ensure the day’s hunt, to get me a good job or partner or make sure my finances are good.
• In feng shui, hanging a picture of Ganesh will prevent bad luck.
• If the graves of my ancestors have good feng shui, good fortune will follow.