Robert J. Burrowes*
A wonderful thing about observing and analyzing the human mind is that there is a seemingly infinite variety of phenomena to observe and analyze. I sometimes wonder if it is even remotely possible to master this subject but, even if it is not, at least it provides an unending source of ‘entertainment’.
The phenomenon that I want to discuss in this article is what Anita McKone and I call the ‘magic rat’.
Before proceeding, let me emphasize that the ‘magic rat’ is an incredibly dangerous psychological disorder that afflicts most political and virtually all corporate leaders, notably including those in the United States, thus rendering them incapable of responding intelligently and appropriately to the ongoing crises in human affairs. And, tragically, it afflicts most other people too, which is one reason why it is difficult to muster a strategic response to these crises, even at grassroots level.
In describing this disorder, I also want to emphasize that it never occurs in isolation. Individuals afflicted by this disorder will invariably have a multiplicity of other disorders too, not necessarily labeled ‘disorders’ in the psychological literature.
So what is the ‘magic rat’, and why can’t it be trapped?
When a human being is terrified to consider a particular fact or set of facts, their mind has an enormous variety of unconscious mechanisms for preventing them from doing so. The most obvious version of this phenomenon which has been identified is known as ‘denial’. See ‘The Psychology of Denial’.
However, the ‘magic rat’ is a different phenomenon which most humans routinely use (unconsciously) to avoid having to respond to frightening circumstances. The nature of these frightening circumstances varies from one individual to the next although patterns can be readily observed in many contexts.
In 2003, Anita had a dream in which a rat was running around and I was chasing it and hitting it with an iron bar. However, each time that I appeared to land a blow on the rat, the rat simply disappeared and reappeared somewhere else. And so my chase resumed. I just couldn’t pin it down.
This psychological phenomenon is readily observed and many people will be able to recall this from their own experience. The ‘magic rat’ occurs when someone is given information that terrifies them. It is important to understand that their fear is unlikely to be readily displayed and it will often be concealed behind some behaviour, such as an apparently ‘rational’ argument or ‘off-hand’ comment in response, or perhaps even a joke.
The frightening information might be personal but it might just as readily be information of any other kind, such as in relation to something that happened historically or about the state of the world. What matters is that the person to whom the information is presented is (unconsciously) terrified by it and responds (again unconsciously) by employing the ‘magic rat’.
The ‘magic rat’ is simply the mechanism by which an unconscious and terrified mind instantly switches its attention from something frightening to something more pleasant to avoid having any time to consciously engage with the presented information. The switch happens instantaneously precisely because the person is so terrified by the information that their mind takes their attention away from it in a moment. If their mind did not do this, the person would be compelled to consider the information and to respond to it.
As Anita and I discussed this phenomenon recently, we could easily recall four different responses by the ‘magic rat’ that we have observed. In no particular order, the first response is for the terrified person’s unconscious mind to shut out the frightening information so effectively that it might well have never been uttered/written; they then proceed as if it had not been.
The second response is for the person frightened by the information to instantly switch the topic of discussion to something else that feels safe (so that they do not have to engage with the information). In some contexts, this might look like a ‘rational’ response but, in fact, closer examination will reveal that their response is irrelevant to the issue raised previously. This version is probably the most difficult to identify simply because most of us have learned to largely ignore what we probably (but incorrectly) perceive as ‘red herrings’.
The third response is to ‘throw out smoke bombs’, as Anita describes it, so that the whole issue is clouded by distractive ‘noise’ designed to distract the attention of the person/people presenting the information in the first place so that they are lured into discussing a less frightening subject. These ‘smoke bombs’ can take many forms, including introducing irrelevant information to confuse you or offering a sarcastic comment as the preliminary to any response (which, of course, will be wide of the subject).
The fourth response is to attack you verbally or physically, because your information is considered an attack on them against which they must immediately and aggressively defend themselves. This version of the problem is sometimes labeled ‘kill the messenger’.
There are no doubt other versions of the ‘magic rat’: what matters is that the person in question is so frightened that they find a way to avoid dealing with the issue that makes them scared.
The purpose of the ‘magic rat’ mechanism is to enable an individual to remain feeling safe in the delusion that they have created for themselves and it is vital that the truth does not penetrate this delusion.
Why would an individual want to (unconsciously) use a delusion to feel safe? For the simple reason that, as a child, the individual never felt safe but was also never given any time or the necessary conditions to both feel this fear while feeling safe, and to actually be safe for most of the time. So because evolution did not equip any individual to live in a permanent state of feeling terrified, the child has no ‘choice’ but to (unconsciously) generate a delusional sense of safety in the unsafe environment. Once the child has done this, however, the delusional state becomes ‘permanent’ and is ‘defended’, both consciously and unconsciously depending on the context, using mechanisms such as the ‘magic rat’ described above.
So is this problem very prevalent? Unfortunately, it is ‘everywhere’. For instance, if you take the information I have presented above and consider this the next time you listen to or read something from Donald Trump, you will have an excellent opportunity to observe and identify the ways in which his mind routinely uses ‘magic rats’ to avoid dealing with reality. See, for example, his decisions in relation to the environment and climate, summarised in ‘A Running List of How Trump Is Changing the Environment’. You might also ponder the extraordinary violence that this man suffered, as a child, at the hands of those adults who were supposed to love him. In addition, you might consider the phenomenal danger to humanity of having this individual in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and its primary human, environmental and climate destroyer: the US military.
But Trump is not the only person afflicted with this psychological disorder. Members of both houses of the United States Congress, with only a few exceptions, also routinely display this disorder although, it should be emphasized, it is often combined with other disorders as they terrifiedly submit to the directives of the insane neocon elite driving US foreign policy and its perpetual war against life.
For instance, it has just been graphically highlighted, yet again, by the recent (virtually unanimous) Congressional decision to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea for reasons which are readily refuted by the verifiable evidence if you are not too terrified to consider it. See, for example, ‘Intel Vets Challenge “Russia Hack” Evidence’, ‘The Mask Is Off: Trump Is Seeking War with Iran’, ‘Trump Intel Chief: North Korea Learned From Libya War to “Never” Give Up Nukes’ and ‘With the European Union Livid, Congress Pushes Forward on Sanctions Against Russia, Iran and North Korea’.
You will also have no trouble identifying this disorder in Israeli or Saudi Arabian leaders either. Again, however, they are far from alone.
Most importantly though, the ‘magic rat’ is almost invariably evident when adults are challenged to consider their phenomenal violence – ‘visible’, ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ – against children, which leads to the terrified and dysfunctional outcomes described above (as well as all of the other terrified and dysfunctional outcomes). See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
So if you don’t even want to know about this violence, the good news is that your ‘magic rat’, if you have one, will ensure that you never even consider looking at these documents (or don’t get past the first page). The problem, for humanity as a whole, is that if too many people are too terrified to even consider the truth, then we are in deep trouble from which I can see no exit. Because if we are to extricate ourselves from this mess, we must start with the truth, no matter how terrifying.
Is there anything you can do next time you see someone use their magic rat? Yes. You can reflect that they sound terrified to consider the information in question. If you feel capable of doing this, bear in mind that you might then need to also listen to their terrified response, which might be aggressive as well. For a fuller answer to this question, see ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’.
Moreover, if you ever notice your own mind being taken away from information that frightens you, see if you can take your attention back to what you found frightening and feel your fear. The information, in itself, is not going to cause you any harm. It is, after all, simply the truth and you are infinitely more powerful to know the truth and hence be in a position to respond to it, even if it scares you initially.
So if you feel able to respond intelligently and powerfully to reality, which means that you can contemplate information that is terrifying to many, then you might consider participating in the fifteen-year strategy of ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’ and signing the online pledge of ‘The People‘s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’. And if you want to develop an effective strategy to resist one or the other of the many threats to our survival, consider using the strategic framework explained in Nonviolent Campaign Strategy.
We cannot trap the ‘magic rat’ that afflicts so many individuals but we might be able to assist some of them to recover from this psychological disorder. We might also be able to mobilise those not afflicted (or not so badly afflicted) to respond powerfully to frightening information about the state of our world.
Sadly, however, many people will use their ‘magic rat’ until the day they die. The important point is that we do not let these people, like Donald Trump, decide the fate of humanity.
*Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.