University News

Magic class melds philosophy, science

Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011

Your room is in complete disarray — clothes everywhere, books and notebooks scattered across your bed, old take-out containers littering the floor. You absolutely hate cleaning, but it has to be done — can magic help?

This was the hypothetical problem recently posed to members of a student group studying magic.

You could clean your room and then practice a form of self-hypnotism to make your brain forget the unpleasant memories, the group proposed. As far as your brain is concerned, your room was dirty one moment and clean the next. This may be possible through the practice of modern magic — a blend of magic, philosophy and cognitive science.

Evan Stites-Clayton ’11, who turned heads last semester with his Group Independent Study Project on lucid dreaming, is casting his spell on broader themes of magic in a course this semester called “Modern Magic and Mysticism.”

The class is not recognized by the University for credit and is instead what Stites-Clayton termed a “group unofficial student project,” or “GUSP.” It is sponsored by Global Extensions, a support group that helps unusual projects at Brown, he said.

He defined magic as “actions that will result in experienced consequences.” This more modern, practical conception of magic includes lucid dreaming, awareness and hypnosis, according to the group’s website. But “anything could be defined as magic,” Stites-Clayton said.

 The Harry Potter series has shaped perceptions of magic as potions, spells or wands. But that is fantastical magic, not the kind practiced by students at Brown. One also would not see any rabbits pulled out of hats in Stites-Clayton’s group.

Their brand of magic is less about directly influencing the world and other people and more about influencing the self, Stites-Clayton said. They practice “more of an internal magic,” he added.

The goal of learning about this type of magic is to improve one’s life, Stites-Clayton said. Increased mental control in alternate consciousnesses can result in better control over the conscious world, he said. Students of magic can live a “more fully embodied existence” as a result of study. The study of magic has not been taken seriously in recent centuries because of the dominance of science and its ability to explain the world, Stites-Clayton said.

Magical techniques useful in the Middle Ages have been forgotten. But with an updated perspective and the use of modern technology, they can be relevant to the our world, he said.

Though last semester’s lucid dreaming project was approved as a GISP, Stites-Clayton decided not to pursue the same designation for “Modern Magic and Mysticism.” Getting the lucid dreaming GISP through the approval process was difficult, he said. Because this new project “is even more fringe,” it would have been extremely hard to get it approved, he added. Stites-Clayton also said he was frustrated by the GISP system, which limited the number of students in the course to 12, even though about 70 had signed up. He also said that because the class does not bestow credit, people have to be more engaged in the subject matter to participate.

The “GUSP” started with the practice of lucid dreaming. Stites-Clayton said it is crucial to reveal magical techniques gradually. If students are deluged with methods from the start, they will become frustrated by their initial failures and give up, he said. The most basic method of learning to lucid dream is the reality check — pinching one’s nose and trying to inhale. The idea is that if one does this many times throughout the day, one will accidentally do it while dreaming. If one cannot breathe, he is in reality, but if he can breathe, he becomes aware that he is in a dream. The other initial step is keeping a dream journal, he added, which allows students to become more conscious of their dreaming world.

The class meets weekly to discuss concepts, view videos and brainstorm about magical scenarios. Stites-Clayton has a collection of books that are relevant to class discussions which he lends out for students to read. Titles on the online syllabus include “Psychic Self-Defense” and “The Runes of Sweden.”

A recent class meeting of roughly 15 students featured a discussion about the relation between sexual mojo and magical powers. For Stites-Clayton, “sexual energy and magical energy are exactly the same,” he said.

The group worked on a magical practice problem involving controlling perceptions of attractiveness. In the proposed scenario, Sue has a boyfriend who does not resemble her ideal man, Brad Pitt. How can Sue use magic to find her boyfriend more attractive?

One group member’s suggestion was to use mind control techniques to change Sue’s idea of the perfect man, from Pitt to her boyfriend. Another proposal was to use mind control to supplant Brad Pitt’s face on her boyfriend whenever she wanted. The group acknowledged that figuring out how to accomplish these goals practically would be more difficult.

Some aspects of this “magic” are more like behavioral therapy and psychology than anything else. This is certainly not a wand-waving class, Stites-Clayton said, though they might make wands later on in the semester. He acknowledged that the practice shares similarities with psychology but said the distinction is that psychology relies on hard data as proof, while magic is the “science of experience.” The group learns about what others have tried as well as the results they reported, but group members must try techniques on their own to determine what works for them, Stites-Clayton said.

But, Stites-Clayton said, we must be careful about who begins to learn magic. Magic is very dangerous in the hands of those who cannot tell the difference between a dream state and reality, he said. Citing the famous quote from “Spiderman,” he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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