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Before he became a philosopher, Harvard Divinity School's David Abram turned tricks.

The award-winning author worked gigs as a magician. He traveled the world as an itinerant magician, and he worked as the "house magician" at Alice's Restaurant (the same restaurant that inspired Arlo Guthrie's famous Vietnam War protest song).

Abram said something weird happened at Alice's.

"Every night," his friend Merlin Sheldrake said, he "passed around the tables; coins walked through his fingers, reappeared exactly where they shouldn't, disappeared again, divided in two, vanished into nothing."

But the customers started to get troubled. Two customers later came back to the restaurant and asked him if he had spiked their drinks when they weren't looking.

After they left the show, the customers told Abram, the sky was "shockingly blue and the clouds large and vivid."

Abram assured them he hadn't spiked their drinks.

And then the same thing kept occurring: customers came back to the restaurant to ask what happened to them. In Sheldrake's words:

Customers returned to say the traffic had seemed louder than it was before, the streetlights brighter, the patterns on the sidewalk more fascinating, the rain more refreshing. The magic tricks were changing the way people experienced the world.

Abram the magician didn't know why this was happening.

But Abram the philosopher had a hunch.

Magicians, Abram notes, take advantage of people's blind spots. Blind spots come from people's preconceptions that are the product of their expectations. When magic tricks produce results that people don't expect, their preconceptions get shaken.

The result?

Blind spots get removed. And because blind spots are our ordinary way of perceiving things, when they get removed, we see the world as it is, not as refracted through expectations and preconceptions.

And the world as it really is, is far more beautiful and awesome than people customarily think.

It's a recurring theme throughout the modern era.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about it. "If you would make acquaintance with the ferns," wrote Thoreau, "you must forget your botany."

The phenomenon of getting beyond preconceptions drove Aldous Huxley's mescaline experiment that he described in Doors of Perception. He, for instance, describes looking at a vase of flowers, 90 minutes after taking the drug:

I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation--the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.
"Is it agreeable or disagreeable?" someone asked.
"Neither agreeable nor disagreeable," I answered. "It just is."

No preconceptions, no expectations. Just seeing things as they actually are. He later described looking at a wall of books:

Like the flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate; of aquamarine, of yellow topaz . . .

The theme recurs throughout the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist's explorations of the interworkings of our brain's right and left hemispheres.

According to McGilchrist, our left hemispheres are over-active and controlling. Because the left hemisphere is responsible for day-to-day living (and surviving), it likes things to be predictable. The left hemisphere likes preconceptions and expectations. It is oblivious to, and completely comfortable with, the resulting "blind spots."

If the left hemisphere's grip on people's minds can be loosened, McGilcrhrist says, their perceptions will change. They will see "into the depth of things . . . all at once [and] recognize them for what they are, no longer overlaid by our projections."

When this happens, McGilchrist says, the "conventional notions" and "mental clichés" that we live by in our everyday world get shoved aside, and the "hall of mirrors" we sleepwalk through comes crashing down and we see things in their naked--beautiful--existence.

We then get a very mild taste of Huxley's experience with mescaline. We get a glimpse of what Thoreau saw at Walden. We become like those patrons at Alice's Restaurant.


Further reading

Story about David Abram can be found in Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, "Introduction."

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