Mitch Horowitz Reveals America's Occult Roots

The word "occult" is loaded with all sorts of associations. To some it conjures images of devil worship and witchcraft; to others it is just a concoction of superstition and nonsense. But the term has a very specific meaning that is neither of these two things, says Mitch Horowitz, author of "Occult America." It refers to a type of spirituality that reemerged during the Renaissance through texts from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans——a spirituality that persists to this day.


In his Big Think interview, Horowitz explains why America has always been something of a "religious laboratory" for the world, allowing a fertile breeding ground for these occult beliefs. "The entire culture of alternative spirituality, new age spirituality, the rebirth of esoteric and occult spirituality in the modern age, springs from America, and for very decided reasons," he says. The occult has also been tied to many American reform movements, including Protestant progressivism. Spiritualists, he says, "were expressing the most radical impulses of the Reformation in which people believed that you could reach the beyond, you could reach the divine with no intermediary." It was an integral part, as well, of feminism and the suffrage movement, especially in upstate New York. "When spiritualism dawned, suddenly women who wanted to engage in the civic and religious culture were becoming transmediums," he says. "It is no accident that in this “Burned Over” district in upstate New York, you had the birth of spiritualism coinciding with the fist conference for women’s voting rights... The movements just absolutely grew out of one another."

Occult symbols like the pentagram and the eye in the pyramid or astrological signs have a certain magnetic power over us, Horowitz says. And rapper Jay-Z is a genius for using these symbols in his music videos, he says: "He understands the magnetism of these symbols." But an even more famous American, Abraham Lincoln, might indeed have been an occultist, or at least probably held séances in the White House. According to the Boston Globe, the President had a trance sitting in 1863, perhaps to contact his dead son Willie.

This secret about Lincoln aside, spiritualism has been more popular in America than most people like to admit. Evidence of this fact is the pervasiveness of the Ouija Board, definitely the most popular and widely recognized object to come out of the Spiritualist movement. Horowitz gives us a brief history of this occult object from its birth in the 1880s through today. The Ouija Board experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1960s and 70s, but it has fallen by the wayside in recent years. "People are scared of Ouija; they don’t want to attract boycotts from the Christian right," he says.

Though the Ouija may be less popular in the past, occultism and spiritualism are necessary as ever, says Horowitz. "People need doorways to explore universal religious and ethical ideas. Pope John Paul II probably beatified more saints than any other Pope in history. He understood that we need modern doorways in order to drink from very, very deep wells." And recent scientific advancements, far from debunking these beliefs, almost necessitate some sort of supernatural explanation. "Experiments in quantum physics have reignited people’s religious or mystical imaginations," he says. "It’s almost impossible to overstate the strangeness and the peculiar nature, the astonishing nature, of what’s been found in quantum physics experiments, over the past eight decades."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.