I recently saw a question that caught my attention which was basically: 'Why did so many people once believe in magic?' The short answer is that magic used to be “real.”
To understand how, you only need to know two things:
- In the past, most magic was about healing and curing illnesses.
- The placebo effect is incredibly powerful, and it becomes more powerful the bigger the placebo.
Many people don’t realize what a significant role the placebo effect can play when it comes to health. The placebo effect is so strong that drug companies try to make trials as impersonal as possible because the power of the placebo effect can make it difficult to notice the additional benefit the drug’s active ingredient is providing.
We also know the bigger the placebo, the bigger the effect, literally. Studies have shown that more expensive placebos produce better outcomes than cheap ones. Bigger pills taken more often produce larger improvements than smaller pills, fake injections can be more powerful than pills, and fake surgeries can be even more powerful. In general, the more dramatic the intervention and the more people believe in the “cure,” the better the outcomes are.
If the placebo effect allows mere faith in a doctor combined with taking one small pill to noticeably improve a person’s illness, imagine what an elaborate healing ceremony that involves dancing, spells, communing with ancestral spirits, and calling on the power of the gods themselves could achieve.
Magic was “real” because people thought it was real. Based on what we know about the placebo effect, many people who went to shamans for healing ceremonies probably got noticeably better as a result. It wasn’t simply that they would have gotten better anyway. They got better because they believed they should get better thanks to magic.
Throughout most of history, people who received “magical” treatments probably did better than those who received no treatment, thanks to the placebo effect. In fact, given how counterproductive some older medical treatments (bloodletting, mercury treatments, surgery without clean hands, etc…) were up until just a century ago, there were probably many instances where the people who saw practitioners of magic did better than people who visited doctors. With evidence like that, why wouldn’t you believe in magic?
The remarkable power of the placebo has probably been the biggest hindrance to mankind’s medical developments. It’s possible to imagine another intelligent species, which doesn’t suffer from this peculiar effect, making medical advances much faster and earlier. Imagine where medicine would be if magic hadn’t “worked” fairly well for so many centuries.