Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Magical Thinking

"The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances" is the bottom line of cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer's research, mentioned in a fascinating article on magical thinking in the Times. (Boyer has written a book called Religion Explained that is also very interesting, and tons more lucid --and empirical--than Daniel Dennett's piece of crap.)

According to the Times article, magical thinking in the form of signs, portents, lucky charms, and the power of visualization is prevalent [gasp] even among smart people (i.e., affluent Americans). It's part of who we are as humans: "Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing," and though most of us graduate to the ability to distinguish these "imaginary worlds" from reality, the tendency is always there to assume we have more power over events than we actually do. Combine this tendency with the mind's habit of making connections and filling in blanks, and with the fact that "we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts" (I love that), and you've got a recipe for rampant wicky wacky woo.

Most of the time it's OK. The most extreme example the article gives is a coach who won't change his clothes as long as his team wins its games. His fiancée doesn't like it, but he's still a functioning member of society. There are those unfortunates, however,
"for whom magical thinking is a central part of how they view the world." They may not smell as bad as the coach (who is normal), but they believe strange stuff and teeter on the edge of "full-blown delusion and psychosis." Personally I think there's a lot more going on with crazy people than a strange set of beliefs--and I'm pretty sure that delusions are a product of insanity, not the other way around-- but the article unintentionally (?) introduces a strange notion of causality in which one can choose to become crazy or not. It's still worth reading.


  1. grigorss2:13 AM

    "a strange notion of causality in which one can choose to become crazy or not." -- and this is a strange notion because...?

  2. Interesting article. Makes me think of Mary Watkins' excellent book Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogues (Analytic Press, 1986).

    Some time ago I read a news story (I wish I had the citation) about a young female basketball player whose coach told her that when she was on the court, she was not [student's name] but [student's aggressive alter-ego]. What some [expletive deleteds] call "dissociation" turned out to be a psychological tool that improved this woman's game.

    At the very least, I believe talismans and ritual (along with creative visualization) serve to focus the mind. Then there's my own "subjective empirical evidence."