It’s Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus.
Superstition is a strange beast. As recently as this year with the events of Covid-19 we continue to see its effects for good and ill across a full spectral spectrum of society.
Training to work as a physical therapist, you hear a mixed bag of tricks and treats from day to day.
In my brief experience, it is still not uncommon for physical therapists to overhear terms like “witchdoctor” thrown around by those who are sceptical of the practice and possible benefits.
In some sense it’s understandable, and often stems from a lack of information regarding the methods and techniques that might be used to aid rehabilitation, or recovery from pain.
What may come as a surprise is that even within the health industry uncertainty is far from unheard of, nor thought of as something that should inspire fear. There is even a slightly unimaginative term for it: clinical uncertainly. In short, It is perfectly normal not to have all the answers, all of the time. Indeed, real problems tend to arise when somebody is convinced that they do.
History teaches us that absolute certainty is often itself worthy of a least little scepticism — a healthy level of uncertainty can help us differentiate scepticism from superstition and cynicism.
On better days physical therapy practitioners may hear terms used by clients such as “magic hands” — which of course (however much we may wish for them) we sadly do not possess. It is easy to empathise with the sudden relief of pain feeling a little magical, and it’s undeniably quite flattering. However, as a modern practitioner it’s important to be clear — it isn’t magic. Many techniques and treatments will come down to not only the knowledge of the practitioner, but also the capacity of the client to heal in a particular environment and time.
So, should we simply throw in our witch’s cape and cowl as we beckon in the change of season with our robust new staunch disbelief? Again, I suspect the secrets of the spell, much like the truth, are not so simple and the real magic which is occurring, is much more fascinating.
Writing on the topic, author and master conjurer of fiction Arthur C Clarke famously suggested that “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet”
In the 1960’s Clarke’s work sufficiently inspired his French editors to innumerate on the tenets they found amongst his writing, resulting in what would become known as “Clarkes Laws”, the third of which states: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic.
That new iPhone? Your WIFI router? or contactless toothbrush charger? Show them to somebody in 1888 and what do you think they’d accuse you of? That’s right — it’s got to be witchcraft.
Often magic is simply something that awaits our further exploration, and this is at the heart of all science and learning. A thrilling (if admittedly occasionally exhausting concept) In the case of Clarke we are of course dealing with fiction, but is fiction always in conflict with fact?
Speaking about narrative in The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bruno Bettelheim describes the processes by which fiction may help us learn real truths.
“The unrealistic nature of these tales (which narrowminded rationalists object to) is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.”
“… The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …”
As such we see that while something may be fictitious, if properly considered and contextualised it may provide wider uses and greater insight. The parable of the red caped girl in the woods: pure folkloric tale-telling fiction, but teaches us to be wary of walking alone in dark places and consider carefully those we confide in.
As with all learning, this kind of education can be both good (teaching responsibility and independence to children) and bad (demonization of wild animals and reinforcing social stigma). Again, we see that knowledge is most useful when it provides greater context. The devil remains in the details.
The history of medicine and its interconnection with what was once termed witchcraft is well documented. Not only do modern day chemists and pharmacists owe thanks to folk medicine, In a similar manner modern manual therapists and surgeons have all gained an insightful education through the work of anatomists and artists. Many of whose work was often undertaken at great risk, from dire necessity and far outside of what we would now term traditional medicine (not to mention the law).
There was undoubtedly a dangerous level of harm and charlatanism, as sadly continues to this day in the work of many clairvoyants, fortune tellers, and perhaps most disturbingly large thriving religious congregations. But to deny how progress was made would to be make victims of a right minded majority because of the actions of a few. As such we find ourselves with Witch Hunts.
The age of witch-hunting spanned more than four centuries (from the 14th to the 17th century) in its sweep from Germany to England. It was born in feudalism and lasted — gaining in virulence — well into the “age of reason.”
We do not have to look far for examples, perhaps the most well-known of our witches found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth feature reference to irrational and unjust torture of those seeking knowledge at the whims of current administration.
Science and scepticism have a long, interwoven history. You may be familiar with the Hocus Pocus of the Sanderson Sisters and their legacy of sharp-witted one liners and snappy reworking of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but the Fox sisters of the early eighteen-hundreds were responsible for the creation of a legacy of fraudulent “spiritualism” that still lingers in the copyright Ouija boards and nonsense séance parlours of the present day. In many ways good and bad these ghosts remain with us. The very word used to describe these women: possessors of wit may be the etymological source of Witch. These spiritual or sceptical trappings remain with us and are often the subject of study by modern Psychology.
Research has shown us that clothing and appearance have a measurable and substantial effects on those being treated my medical professionals. The white coat of a doctor is a recognisable feature of a professional in many contexts, but to some signify something more ominous. As such it’s possible to consider that tattoos, jewellery, even the décor of a room can take on a profound and noteworthy meaning.
By many accounts, language is our ultimate magic trick. Increasing amounts of research is showing how we manifest feelings and responses based upon other’s words and our interpretations of them. These concepts and ideas, explored in areas such as Narrative Based medicine seem to provide a little truth to the old adage that we see things not as they are, but as we are — a concept that would certainly once have been be considered ‘magical thinking’.
As recently as this year, the effects of Covid-19 have provided us examples of people who have had their narratives radically altered and shifted with them. It is vital to remember that with dramatic shifts can come changes for better and worse. It is our focus on objectivity and measure that helps steer our thinking and align our intentions with action
Through history, rightly or wrongly, many cultures and religions have borrowed from one another for the purposes and needs of healing and medicine. It would seem selfish and short sighted not to acknowledge that, in this we do owe them a debt of respect, along with our scepticism.
Looked at in such a light, evidence-based research and medicine are in many senses the ancestors of early exploratory, often hard-won advances made by those on the periphery of learning.
These frontier women who were so highly considered amongst their communities, shared a core value in line with the best health practitioners of modern day; a pursuit of knowledge and the desire to share it.
Like those real-life witches of old or the fictional spectres of Macbeth, and the bewitching charms of the Sanderson sisters, they all have something to teach us. Knowledge and self-awareness continue to be our most powerful allies and can cast a spell over all of us.
Further Reading & Reference.
Bruno Bettelheim. (1975) The Uses of Enchantment, Penguin.
Derren Brown. (2011) Miracles for Sale, Channel Four productions.
Arthur C Clarke. (1962) Hazards of Prophecy: the failure of the imagination.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. (1973) Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/ehrenreich-barbara/witches.htm
Helen Thompson. (2014) How Witches’ Brews Helped Bring Modern Drugs to Market, Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-witches-brews-helped-bring-modern-drugs-market-180953202/
Terry Stewart. North Berwick Witch Trials, Historic UK. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/North-Berwick-Witch-Trials/
Darlow,B. Dowell, A et al. 2013. The Enduring Impact of What Clinicians Say to People With Low Back Pain. Annals of Family Medicine. Available at: <http://www.annfammed.org/content/11/6/527.full> Accessed 30.10.2020
Christopher M Petrilli, Sanjay Saint et al. 2015. Understanding patient preference for physician attire: a cross-sectional observational study of 10 academic medical centres in the USA. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4312788/ Accessed 30.10.2020