Apropos for April Fool’s Day, today’s Lunch with TED clip from a 2009 TEDMED features magician Eric Mead marveling at the effectiveness of placebos in medicine and demonstrating the power of imagination over reason. Be forewarned: this clip is not for the faint of heart. If you get squeamish about needles, blood, and the two of these combined, you may want to shield your eyes.
And thus, with the prick of a needle, reason is subjected to the mighty tyranny of imagination! In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal laments that this faculty is
“that deceitful part in man, that mistress of error and falsity, the more deceptive that she is not always so; for she would be an infallible rule of truth, if she were an infallible rule of falsehood. But being most generally false, she gives no sign of her nature, impressing the same character on the true and the false. I do not speak of fools, I speak of the wisest men; and it is among them that the imagination has the great gift of persuasion. Reason protests in vain; it cannot set a true value on things.”
After all, he points out, would we listen to an ill-tailored magistrate? Does not a slight sound in the dark unhinge reason? Are we not often fearful at a great height, even if we know that we cannot possibly fall?
Pascal is concerned with the perils of such deception, for we should desire to see accurately. But the imagination’s power may yet be put to good use. As we have seen, it can help the body to overcome illness. It allows us to encounter “poetic knowledge”—sensory-emotional experiences of reality. It creates space for us to see beyond ourselves, to encounter otherness, and to feel empathy. The imagination is also the realm of the artist, who may use it judiciously to delight, instruct, and inspire.
But then again, it may cause you to trust a con man, become a germaphobe, join a cult, cower during thunderstorms, or purchase a night light.
Happy April 1st! ‘