Coded gray.

Tuesday 12 September 2000


Pic of the day: Will we ever be able to harness the power of expectation? And if we could, should we?

The magic of expectation

Some people, such as New Age writer James Redfield, claim that our expectations create a "field" that surrounds us and stretches out in front of us. Interacting with the fields of other people and objects, it attracts the things we expect and repels the things we don't expect. I guess this would explain why I usually pick up the wrong key first (out of two possible), whether I am at work or at home. Still, I don't think it is quite that simple...

With regard to our own bodies, the power of expectation is well known. It even has a fancy scientific name: "Placebo". Belief can kill within hours, or it can heal serious illnesses and alleviate suffering during others. Body and soul are not like two sides of the same coin, they are like the coin and its image. I think.

Also in our relationship with others, it is well known that people send out subtle signals about the role they want to play. This may be strikingly different from what we say in words, and even from what we believe ourselves. Who hasn't noticed how bullies, not otherwise known for their keen powers of observation, manage to pick out their victims so fast? Or how some otherwise unremarkable people are repeatedly surrounded by the opposite sex? I even know a guy who has worked for the tax office for a generation now, he is able to point out a teacher at sight, even if the man is a total stranger.

But I think this connection does not extend to impersonal forces of nature. I sincerely don't think the existence of relativity or Hawking radiation depends on how many people believe in it at any given time. The same applies for magic. There are those who say that magic really worked in days gone by, but not any more, because of the spiritual resistance from millions of ossified minds trapped in the scientific worldview. I don't think it's that easy.


I have personally seen things that border on "magic": People who spontaneously recover from chronic illnesses such as cancer or arthritis. In those cases, these people were prayed for; but I think there are very few people who are not prayed for by someone. And yet all of us die sooner or later. Obviously the connection is not quite that simple. The same goes for stuff like telepathy or telekinesis. Lots of us have experienced it, but nobody can perform it on demand. (As far as I know.)

Once upon a time, doctors did not expect sugar coated calcium pills to have any effect whatsoever, which was why these were used as controls in experiments. The same goes for a neutral saline water injection (with the same salinity as the blood itself). Today, the placebo effect is thoroughly documented. When it comes to other expectation effects, however, research is still spotty. Almost certainly we will find that expectation is decisive in interpersonal relations. (Which, incidentally, is not exactly good news for me.) When it comes to winning the lottery, however, the field is still wide open. I'm sure there is someone researching it right now, at least if it is eligible for Federal (USA) or EU (Europe) funds.

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