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Wrapping Up Animism

While musing on my third (and final!) column on animism, I happened on this quote from “designer” Michael Anastassiades: “I think it is a magic object; the lightbulb exists in two different forms. One when it is off, the other when it is on, and they’re very different.”

No reason I’d know Mr. A, a London-based young Cypriot lighting-plus designer who seems to go overboard for white globes. He certainly is making no claim that the lightbulb is alive, only that it “changes” form which of course it really doesn’t. Any more than a match changes “form” once lighted. Or a red light turns to green more quickly because of our wish.

It was child psychologist Jean Piaget who developed the concept of animism in the earlier half of the 1900s. Simply put, this is the belief that natural objects have life.

While in college I tested 124 contemporary college students, asking twelve questions on the subject. Those results were published here last week.

Having the opportunity and being so intrigued by the answers I was getting, I was able to administer my test to 26 sixth graders, 211 in ninth and 21 high school seniors. As before I read the questions but asked the responses to be written out. I anticipated the number of animistic responses to decrease with age, a supposition supported as the mean number of replies dropped from seven to four to just one among the seniors.

Limited space here suggests I group the answers so will add the grade after each response, choosing the yes answers I found most interesting.

1. Is a match alive? “Yes, because it can light.” (6)

2. Is a lighted match alive? “Yes, because it burns.” (6) “Yes, because it breathes air and gives off carbon dioxide.” (9) “Because live things can hurt certain things and matches can hurt humans as well as things.” (9) “Yes, because it was once part of a tree.” (12)

3. Is an electric clock alive? “Yes, because it will tick just like a heart.” (6) “Yes, because it is working.” (6) “Yes, because it ticks and keeps time.” (6) “Yes, because it is telling time just as if it was talking.” (9) “Yes, because it is running and carrying on work.” (12)

4. Is the sun alive? “Yes, because it shines; because it is like a match.” (6) “Yes, because it is alive with gases; if it were not we would not be alive.” (9) “Yes, because it gives off heat and light.” (12) “A lighted match, an electric clock, and the sun are all alive because they have a purpose.” (9) “The electric clock and the sun are alive because they have energy.” (12)

5. Is the wind alive? “Yes, because it is blowing or moving.” (6) “Yes, because it is able to move things.” (9) “Yes, when it is blowing.” (12)

6. Is a five-cent piece alive? “Yes, because it makes you feel alive.” (6) “Yes, because it moves from one place to another.” (9) “Yes. If a five-cent piece weren’t alive we couldn’t buy things and thus we would die.” (9)

7. Is a pearl alive? “Yes, because it lives in a living thing.” (12)

8. Is gasoline alive? “Yes, because it makes the car move.” (6) “Yes, because it moves.” (9) “Yes, because it performs a job.” “Yes, because there is a type of movement.” “Yes, when lit by a match.” (12) “Sun and gasoline are alive because they have power.” (12)

9. Is the ocean alive? “Yes, because it can move.” (6) “Yes, because it can wave back and forth.” (9) “Yes, because of the tremendous waves.” (12)

10. Many ships are lost at the bottom of the sea. We cannot find them. Do you think the sea itself knows where they are? “Yes, because it put them there.” (6)

11. The pearl was once in a shell in the sea. When the water moved, could the pearl feel the movement of the water? No responses recorded.

12. The tides are caused by the pull of the moon upon the ocean. Do you think the ocean can feel the pull of the moon which causes high tides? “Yes, because the water moves.” (6) “Yes, because the ocean would have to go upon the moon’s command.” (9)

I noted at the end of this experiment the number of comparisons to living organisms. Piaget doesn’t go into this but perhaps someone has since these studies were first done sixty years ago.

So what do you think? I know I apologize to a table if it stubs my toes (going to have to think about that) though I insist it’s only because its my readiest reflex with people and animals around.

Then again, my world has always been full of magic.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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