Science of the Magical


I’ve often heard colleagues opine that “it’s wonderful that science is finally catching up with what we know to have been true all along”, which strikes me as being a bit presumptuous.  As if new learning principally occurs through science being informed by clinical practice and downplaying the inverse.  While it can be dangerous to dwell in the past, waiting for the future to catch up to us, there are intriguing inherited aspects of society and practice that are ultimately borne out by science – or at least elements of science that do tend to support inherited wisdoms in particular cultures both lay and professional.

This is the substance of a new book by a science correspondent for the Economist, Matt Kaplan.  There is a lovely interview with Matt that you can listen to on GoodBooksRadio:

… as well as a penetrating interview published in Atlantic magazine.

Here is a fascinating insight from early in the book (p.16) involving protective eye shadow.  In ancient Egypt, green and black makeup was extensively applied around the eyes by followers of Horus, the god of the sky and kings, but also adopted by commoners.  What surprised archeologists who discovered this were the magical effects that Egyptians attributed to the makeup.  Kaplan cites a paper published in 2010 in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the abstract of which reads as follows:

“Lead-based compounds were used during antiquity as both pigments and medicines in the formulation of makeup materials. Chemical analysis of cosmetics samples found in Egyptians tombs and the reconstitution of ancient recipes as reported by Greco-Roman authors have shown that two non-natural lead chlorides (laurionite Pb(OH)Cl and phosgenite Pb2Cl2CO3) were purposely synthesized and were used as fine powders in makeup and eye lotions. According to ancient Egyptian manuscripts, these were essential remedies for treating eye illness and skin ailments. This conclusion seems amazing because today we focus only on the well-recognized toxicity of lead salts. Here, using ultramicroelectrodes, we obtain new insights into the biochemical interactions between lead(II) ions and cells, which support the ancient medical use of sparingly soluble lead compounds. Submicromolar concentrations of Pb2+ ions are shown to be sufficient for eliciting specific oxidative stress responses of keratinocytes. These consist essentially of an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NO°). Owing to the biological role of NO° in stimulating nonspecific immunological defenses, one may argue that these lead compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in ancient Egyptian formulations to prevent and treat eye illnesses by promoting the action of immune cells.”

Matt interviewed Dr. Christian Amatore, lead author on the paper, who observed: “The antibiotics that we use today cannot kill all bacteria, especially once bacterial populations have radically expanded.  After dividing a lot, bacteria create a lot of greater diversity that allows for antibiotic resistance to arise, which makes the population much harder to kill off.  In this respect, the way the makeup prevents bacteria from settling in the eye in the first place is more effective than many of our present strategies.”

This left Matt wondering whether the makeup that Egyptians wore for centuries was solely for fashion and religious reasons, or that people noticed the protective power of the eye shadow and came to the conclusion that putting it on drew blessings from Horus that kept their eyes healthy?

I’ve known of no one better in my career at dissecting mythology and psychoneuroimmunology as applied to vision therapy than Steven J. Cool, Ph.D., FAAO who has been on the faculty at several graduate schools of the Pacific University in Oregon for many years.  It has been quite awhile since Steve last lectured at the annual COVD meeting, and he was a master at teasing out the science of the magical.  I miss his wit and wisdom, but reading Matt Kaplan brings a bit of Cool’s voice back.

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