The psychology of magic: Where do we look for meaning in life?

The desperate search for a narrative opens the door to the wonders of magic.

DERREN BROWN: We live in a world now where we've comfortably dispensed with most myth and superstition for the last few hundred years. That's the enlightenment project, you know, we have embraced a very rational approach to life and that's wonderful and it has brought us many great things, but it's also left us with a sort of a meaning gap.

So, for example, we've removed any meaning around the idea of death so particularly morbid superstitions are the first things that we sort of got rid of. So, if death now doesn't really have any meaning it means we don't live comfortably with the idea of death, death is an unwelcome and absurd and terrifying and alienating sort of stranger when it comes rather than a companion to life that's something that's present and in the background that we sort of make our peace with, which plenty of other cultures do. And then when it happens we really struggled for a narrative. The only narrative we have really is the brave battle that someone is fighting. That's sort of our cultural narrative around death, which is really not helpful. It's not helpful for the person that's dying, it just adds failure to another list of problems that they've already got. It's more helpful for the people around them. And that's sort of the problem our need for narrative and meaning at that point has been, well it's there but the narrative, our sense of authorship has been jettisoned and the people around us are making the decisions. They're taking authorship of this point in our life when we need maximum authorship really. We start to feel like or can start to feel like a cameo part while the doctors and loved ones and people are making decisions.

So, there's an example of meaning and myth been taken out of something where it's psychologically important, it's important for us to have some kind of sense of meaning in those times. So, it's no coincidence that psychics and spiritual mediums and all of that world come in with a fairly tawdry sense of meaning, they don't really offer anything useful, but they kind of seem like they do so they become very popular in our sort of society where we're desperate for something, we're desperate for some sort of narrative that just gives us a sense of something bigger. So, I think that's very important because magic is in a secular way is promising those kind of things. And we know it's theatrical, we certainly do with a stage magician, we don't if it's a medium where perhaps we believe in them maybe. But I think they're always going to tap into our need for that element of life, that kind of feeling of wonder, of the thing that's bigger than ourselves, of transcendence. I mean that's what it's tapping into. And that's a hugely important thing in life; you only find meaning in life by finding the thing that's bigger than you and throwing yourself into that thing. That's how you find meaning. And meaning is more important than happiness. When people's lives mean nothing that's when they throw themselves off buildings, which we all deal with unhappiness all the time so meaning is the most important. And when we lack a sense of transcendence or when we lack a sense of narratives that are bigger than us that we can lose ourselves in we're going to try and find it where we can and magic in it's silly vaudevillian often childish way I think tends to appeal to that.

  • By embracing a rational approach to life, society at large has stripped away meaning from psychologically important elements of life, including death.
  • A lack of meaning leads to discomfort, which results in a desperate search for narrative in things that feel transcendent and bigger than ourselves.
  • For some, the wonder of magic fills that void and provides the meaning and structure that has been lost.
  • Derren returns to the stage with his new live, one-man show, Showman. Check it out here.

New AI can identify you by your dancing “fingerprint”

We each have a way of moving to music that is so unique a computer can use it to identify us.

Photo by David Redfern / Staff via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The way we dance to music is so signature to an individual that a computer can now identify us by our unique dancing "fingerprint" with over 90 percent accuracy.
  • The AI had a harder time identifying dancers who were trying to dance to metal and jazz music.
  • Researchers say they are interested in what the results of this study reveal about human response to music, rather than potential surveillance uses.
Keep reading

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading

Study suggests sperm donation, like organs, should be allowed post-mortem

Is it ethical to use a dead man's sperm to become pregnant?

Photo by Lina White on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • Many parts of the world are suffering from a shortage of sperm donors due to the high bar for acceptance and varying laws regarding donor anonymity.
  • A recent article suggested that, as a solution, we should consider allowing men to opt-in to posthumous sperm donation, much like men and women do for organ donation.
  • It's technically feasible, but how would we navigate the complex ethical and legal issues surrounding such a proposal?

Can, and should, dead men procreate? Yes and yes, says a recent article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The UK is facing a sperm donor crisis. According to the article, UK sperm banks only take on a few hundred new donors per year, forcing them to import thousands of sperm samples from the U.S. and Denmark, which dominate the global market for sperm donations due to their high supply.

These countries have a high supply of sperm primarily because of laws and regulations protecting the donor's anonymity — in the UK, for instance, babies born from sperm donations are permitted to contact their biological father after they turn 18, an emotional confrontation that dissuades many from donating. In fact, in a 2016 study based in the U.S., 29 percent of current donors said they would have refused to donate if they could not be anonymous.

How can we increase the supply of sperm donors while simultaneously shielding donors from a potentially life-upending confrontation and providing children with the right to know their own ancestry? Allow for post-mortem sperm donations. Men could opt-in to become sperm donors after their death, just like they do as organ donors. So long as they were collected no longer than 48 hours after death, sperm could be collected via surgery or electrical stimulation of the prostate and be frozen for later use.

"If it is morally acceptable that individuals can donate their tissues to relieve the suffering of others in 'life-enhancing transplants' for diseases," wrote the article authors, "we see no reason this cannot be extended to other forms of suffering like infertility."

A legal and ethical quandary?

As it turns out, this idea isn't all that new. The first posthumous sperm retrieval occurred in 1980 after a 30-year-old man suffered a fatal brain injury in a car accident. His family requested that his sperm be preserved, which was done through surgery soon after he had been declared dead.

There have been numerous postmortem sperm retrievals since then, but they've always existed in a legal grey area. For instance, in 1997, a UK man named Stephen Blood caught meningitis, collapsed into a coma, and died soon after. His wife, Diane Blood, had requested that doctors extract two samples of semen from Mr. Blood.

However, the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority had forbidden Mrs. Blood from using those samples to become pregnant, as Mr. Blood had passed away prior to giving written consent to the procedure. In the UK posthumous sperm donation is illegal without written consent. After an appeal, Mrs. Blood was permitted to seek fertility treatment outside of the UK and later gave birth to a son.

Other countries, such as France, Germany, and Taiwan, have a full ban on posthumous fertilization. At the same time, countries like the U.S. and Belgium have no legislation on the subject whatsoever. Given the complex legal, ethical, and medical nature of posthumous fertilization, this range of legislative response is not unexpected. For example, is it ethical to collect sperm from an individual who never wanted to procreate in a country where the young population is dwindling and sperm donors are in short supply? Such is the case in many parts of the UK Is it reasonable to collect sperm from donors who have died and who are, by extension, more likely to be older and with less healthy sperm? Is the offspring of a deceased sperm donor considered to be the donor's legal heir?

These and other issues muddy the waters for countries when crafting policies around posthumous sperm donation. However, the authors of the recent Journal of Medical Ethics article argue that allowing for this procedure is at the very least ethically permissible and likely beneficial for society at large.

"The ability to reproduce matters to people and donated sperm enables many people to fulfill their reproductive desires," write the authors. "It is both feasible and morally permissible for men to volunteer their sperm to be donated to strangers after death in order to ensure sufficient quantities of sperm with desired qualities."