Spec Tech: Do You Beleve in Magic?

Tis the silly season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the spirit of the time I offer a short diversion.

Here’s my puzzle. In my work as an anthropologist, I have found that people who experience the holy spirit and magic, people who are able to experience God as a person among persons (while still remaining God), people who are able to do what magical and spiritual practice demands of them, usually score highly on something called the Tellegen absorption scale. The way you score on the scale even predicts whether you report that you’ve ever heard a voice when you have been alone (it’s pretty common, but still) or seen or felt something that was not materially present. In fact, this scale pretty much correlates with most spiritual and (I think) magical experience. Why should that be? What is this scale picking up? (It is not picking up pathology, for the paranoid among you.)

I’d love to see how writers respond to the scale. For fun, take a look—it should take you about five minutes to do—and then count up the number of “trues” you marked (the scale is on someone else’s website, and I don’t know that person, and it does not send scores to me) and let’s talk about what you think the scale picks up. I’d love to know whether you think that what it taps is important to the fiction writer’s craft or not. And if you think it is, what’s the difference between what a fiction writer does, and spirituality/religion?

Here it is: http://fp.arizona.edu/patti/psyc357/form_357-791_absorption_scale.htm


22 thoughts on “Spec Tech: Do You Beleve in Magic?

  1. I got 23 “trues.” I am guessing that’s about as high as you can get without there being something wrong with you…

    There are many who consider spirituality/religion just a form of advanced “suspension of disbelief” in the face of fiction. On the other hand, you have people who believe that their drug- or illness-induced hallucinations are actually direct communication with a supernatural force of some kind.

    I don’t know where the line is between “sensitivity to things beyond the mundane” and “wild imagination” and “needs medication.” Everyone wants to believe that their own mystical experiences are real, and others’ are bunk. But the only thing I feel fairly certain about is that if you score low on this scale, you may be good at writing some kinds of fiction, but speculative fiction will probably never be your passion or your greatest talent.

  2. I always struggle with survey’s like this (what do you mean by like? etc) and I guess part of it is how you want to self identify. I got 18 and could have got higher if I’d wanted to, but as much as I would like to say I’m greatly moved by sunsets, I’m not… not what I would call greatly moved. I could have scored lower as well.

    I’d say there could be a chunk of Spec Fic writers who don’t score high on the scale, because they don’t engage with things in this way and are engaging with puzzles – intellectually/passionately/alienly from different angles.

  3. Hi, these are both really interesting comments. The scale really doesn’t tap pathology, tho–I’ve known happy, healthy people to score 34 and 0. Are the two of you disagreeing, do you think, or talking about different kinds of fiction?

  4. I scored 20. To be a good fiction writer (as opposed, perhaps, to a bestselling one), one needs to be able to see things in an original way and to evoke them with brief but accurate description. I think this scale could easily relate to fiction writing. It seems to show one’s ability to immerse oneself in details and experiences, which is one way to see with an original eye and pick out the most important details.

  5. I got 15 trues. In tests for deciding if your proclivities are to right or left brain function / creativity or logic, I’ve always scored right down the middle. So are we looking at whether a more spiritual person would write better fantasy and a less spiritual person would write better hard SF? Or that it takes as much of a spiritual to write any kind of Spec Fic story compared to writing a thriller or a cozy mystery?

    Hmm. I think writers will bring a sense of who they are and what they believe to anything they write. Carl Sagan brought wonder to the stars. There’s edgy, analytical magic out there. That’s part of the voice — the truth — of each person, writer or not. I know people I would classify as very spiritual according to this scale who wouldn’t entertain spec fic in any of its forms, and SF writers who are cold geeks. So yes, our beliefs will inform our work, our likes, our desires, but I don’t think they preclude or exclude our ability to write in or our interest in reading any genre.

  6. Given Speculative Fiction was the kind of writer described I’d say I’m respectfully disagreeing. I think great speculative fiction writers can be across the scale. I think people who are high on the scale might find it easier to write fiction, especially fantastical fiction. But people who are lower on the scale might be more actively wrestling with different concepts, which can makes for intriguing fiction of speculations.

    In rough, rude categories I’ve just made up and aren’t designed to carry much weight. ‘Experiential speculation’ (high scale) can be profound, ‘experimental speculation’ (low scale) can be profound. I would say experimental fiction can be harder to pull off, but there can be wonderful things emerging from such struggle. In the world of wild and random speculation there might be higher proportion of ‘low scale’ fiction writers in the world of spec fic because more experiments are ‘allowed’.

  7. So would your intuition be that conceptual logic and fantastical thinking are found in different kinds of people? eg, you can’t be good at one and good at the other (I sort of think that this is what the psychological literature implies–that it’s more like temperament) or that they are different kinds of skills, so that you can be skilled or not skilled in either (which is kind of what I think)? Wild and random speculation here is fine 🙂

    1. I consider myself to be both an extremely logical and an extremely “fantastical” kind of person, simultaneously. For example, I am solidly religious but I am offended by the idea that faith is something that “doesn’t have to make sense.” To me, it certainly should. What is it Einstein said? Something about “I do not believe that God would have granted us reason if he intended for us to forgo its use.”

      I don’t have faith in anything that doesn’t make sense, at least insofar as I understand it. The “faith” part comes in when something goes beyond my capability of understanding. I have “faith” that there are galaxies billions of light years away, though I don’t have the faintest idea how to “prove” that. But everything about astronomy that I do understand makes sense to me, so I have faith that the rest of it is equally logical. I belong to the religion I do because my faith makes more “sense” to me than other faiths, and therefore seems the most “true.”

      I don’t believe things based entirely on feeling and intuition, though I do feel these things very strongly and often believe that I can “sense” spiritual or transcendent things. If my “sensitivity” ever contradicts my logic, though, I always listen to logic rather than my feelings, no matter how strong or even overwhelming those feelings may be.

      1. Ms. Baker, I would quite like to explore several aspects of the self-assessment you’ve made here. In the interest of full disclosure, I take the general view that it is a contradiction to be both ‘very logical’ and ‘very religious’, but I’d like to discover the weak points of my assertion. If you’re so inclined, I can be reached at mayadvorah@gmail.com. Thanks.

  8. I scored 31. Mishell, does that mean there’s something wrong with me? The score does depend somewhat on interpretation; my score would have been lower if I answered “true” only for things that I experience frequently, whereas I took all the questions to mean, “does this ever happen to you?”.

    More relevant, I think, is Liz’s point that different spec fiction writers will score differently depending on the kind of stories that interest them. Since my favorite writing and reading falls in the mythological/metaphysical end of fantasy (Tolkien, de Lint, Gaiman and Le Guin are favorites) I’m not at all surprised that I ended up with a high score. I imagine that writers and readers who prefer hard SF, and who are therefore tuned into the concrete and physical, will probably fall in the “what stupid questions!” end of the scale.

    Great topic!

  9. I would say people are complex. I engage in conceptual logic and fantastical thinking, others lean in different directions. Like athletic ability it depends on what you are gifted with, what you exercise, how you exercise and what society expects of you. Or how people come to (or do not come to) emotional literacy through different pathways in a combination of biology, psychology, physical environment and socio-cultural formations.

  10. I scored 10. It might have been higher if the questions had used the word “book” instead of “TV”, “sunset”, “music”, etc..

    For the record, I don’t believe in magic, gods, psi, fairies, UFOs, conspiracy theories, Santa, or anything like that, so my score is at the right end of the scale. You might not be surprised to hear that I also write “hard” science fiction.

    1. So this is really neat. I think that we’ve got a distinction between the Tolkien/LeGuin/CS Lewis vibe and the hard science fiction vibe. It’s true that the high scorers I know are drawn to that mode of imagining–what AS Byatt I think would call the numinous. It’s a certain way of imagining, not the capacity to imagine full stop. Front and center in evangelical Christianity btw–the last time I was in the Wheaton bookstore, the center table was stacked high with Tolkien.

      Nothing wrong with scoring 31. Another closely affiliated scale is entitled “openness to experience” and the absorption scale is correlated with empathy–as well as hearing voices (non-psychotically). Not quite sure where that relationship comes from, but it is robust. What an interesting set of comments!

      1. Sorry, had to laugh at the idea of hearing voices non-psychotically!

        As it happens, I’m a great fan of Ursula le Guinn but my favourite of hers is ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (very much hard SF.) Yet, even when she writes Earthsea stories, she still writes with breathtaking skill. I also love Tolkein and CS Lewis for similar reasons. A brilliant writer is brilliant regardless of genre, although, sometimes, the suspension of disbelief can be painfully difficult 🙂

  11. I scored a 22, and I probably could have scored even higher, but I was being very literal and careful with some of the questions. I am a very logical, rational person (I’ve been a financial auditor, you can’t get much more practical or hardnose than that), but I also have a pretty vivid imagination. I know what is and isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine things that I know aren’t real, but which are delightful or amazing experiences.

    A lot of these questions sounded right brain vs left brain to me, as well. I’m ambidextrous, good at both right and left brain things, and I’m very aware of the different states of mind when I’m in one or the other. The auditor in me is definitely left brained – structured and no-nonsense. The artistic person with the imagination is definitely right-brained.

  12. I scored 32 true answers. However, I don’t write and read much fantasy. I might be the only sf/f writer who didn’t finish Lord of the Rings (I stopped at 100 pages in the first volume). I am an atheist in the traditional religious sense, although I believe in Spinoza’s concept of God as “that which nothing greater can be conceived.” On this test I see it verifying that which I long ago came to understand: I have a highly imaginative mind and am highly sensitive to the experiences of the world. Hey — maybe that’s why I write imaginative fiction!
    I also believe that science is the best way to understand the universe and that exploring the universe through science does not preclude being in awe of the universe. Actually, I think science leads to greater awe. I live close to nature in a part of the world (i.e., rural, coastal Alaska) that makes that easier. That I answered so many trues here doesn’t mean I am a woo-woo mystic. I think it means I have opened my senses and mind to experiences urban humans sometimes don’t know.

  13. Hmm. I scored 31. I would be very surprised if any writer of fiction answered #7 “false.” Some of these questions are fascinating and mysterious. “I often take delight in small things (like the five-pointed star shape that appears when you cut an apple across the core, or the colors in soap bubbles).” I mean…I do. Take delight in such things. But it interests me that that might make a person easier to hypnotize. OTOH, I find hypnotic (and other altered states) mysterious, too. Tanya, now you’re going to have to write a paper about the minds of speculative fiction writers. 🙂

    1. Hi! Hm, I don’t think I’d dare to write about the minds of speculative fiction writers .. but I am now very intrigued. I do think that what this has taught me is that the scale seems to pick up something about delight and trust in the non-everyday. Makes me wonder whether people who believed in a non-furry-lion God (say, an 18th or even 8th century God) would score so highly as modern evangelicals. Also makes me wonder about the ways different imagined worlds are sort of held in the mind by different kinds of writers.

  14. I scored 28. There were some questions I had to think about, like, whether I really deserved to mark them true. I write spec fic and I feel like a good story triggers some of the feelings described, but I don’t really think it could be a reliable measure of things related to fiction writing.

      1. Looks like they’ve taken down that page now, so I can’t go back to refer to it. I just recall thinking that a lot of questions struck me as related to feats of imagination — that is, abilities that would be helpful in fully imagining a situation or scene, a worst or best case scenario, etc. And a number of others struck me as related to “the sense of wonder.” That is, the ability to look at something, someone, someplace, as if you had never seen anything like it/them before. And with a sort of humility, in the sense of feeling humbled at how much mystery there is in everything; how much there is about the world that we really don’t understand. I would say that if any characteristic is crucial for a writer of speculative fiction, it is that sense of wonder — the ability to choose to see the world as a child does, without preconceptions or the sorts of sensory filters we naturally develop with experience.

  15. Hi, a reply to Nancy–yes, that’s a really good point. I’ve been thinking about that scale as capturing just being absorbed in your imagination, but I think that what this discussion has taught me is that it is not just that–it is also about that sense of wonder. “Child-like” doesn’t quite capture it, because that seems, well, to suggest we ought to grow out of. “Magical” and “supernatural” don’t seem quite right, either, nor “numinous” though that is better. What would you call it? This is the scale again–here, they talk about it capturing “being open to self-altering experiences.”


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