Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Magical Thinking

Most of us, when considering this issue seriously and with our grown-up hats on, would probably say we don’t believe in magic (of the Harry Potter variety, at least). Spells and potions ... That’s the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. It is astonishing, however, how easily even intelligent adults can slip back into ‘magical thinking’.

By this I mean those times when we think that somehow, in some mysterious and unspecified way, our thoughts and wishes can influence the world around us. How many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) something like this: ‘Whenever I go into a busy car park I just say to myself, over and over, “I will find a spot, I will find a spot”—and, wouldn’t you know, just at that moment someone pulls out and leaves one free!’ Some people ‘wish’ for this, some people ‘pray’ for it, and some people just clench their teeth and try to will it to happen. I can hear many of you saying even as I write this, ‘But it’s true!’

Well, guess what. It isn’t. I also go into crowded car parks, and I find a car park without doing any of that. At least, I try not to do it. However, we are so egocentric that despite all our efforts to remain rational, we persist in the belief that we are the centre of the universe and that we can bend it to our will, or we can bend God to our will so that he will bend the universe to accommodate our wishes. Wishes which are, for the most part, pretty trivial.

I certainly do it at other times and in other circumstances. For example, that lotto ticket I bought the other night ... Do I go to bed and ‘wish’—‘pretty please, pretty please’—to win? Of course I do. And when I win a little prize I say, ‘See, it works’ ... and conveniently forget the previous ten, twenty, thirty times prior to that when it didn’t work. Our mind is strange. We notice and remember the occasions when our wishes happen to coincide with the reality that unfolds, and conveniently forget the rest. Finding patterns is something our mind does very well. Many times this is really useful. This actually requires us to filter out extraneous noise. Unfortunately we can easily fool ourselves, too, into seeing patterns and relationships that aren’t there. In particular, we easily see causality where there is none.

There was a time when different models of cars used to look quite different from each other. Now they all look pretty much the same; or certain categories of cars do, anyway: hatchbacks, four-wheel drives or whatever. Who can tell which model or brand is which? But I remember a time when I would buy a car that had some distinguishing features and, all of a sudden, I would see this particular model of car everywhere. ‘Wow! Spooky! Isn’t it strange how I now keep seeing ****s everywhere!’ Our magical thinking imagines that the world has changed in some mysterious way since I bought the car; that somehow the universe is suddenly bringing more ****s into my sphere of reality. Of course, what has changed is my perception. Before I didn’t notice ****s; now I do.

I am as prone to magical thinking as anyone. It seems to be hardwired, linked to our ability to detect patterns and to generalise from specifics. These are very useful capacities. However, I like to think that I can step back a little from that, apply a little rationality and logic to the situation.

It’s not always necessary to do this. What’s wrong with a little magic, after all? Nothing really, except that it can lead to certain individual and societal disorders. What is an obsessive compulsive disorder if not an extreme form of magical thinking? ‘I have to turn the light on and off five times or something bad is going to happen.’ How easily magical thinking can lead to guilt when it fails. ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t wish [or believe or pray] hard enough.’ If we falsely believe that we have that kind of power over the universe, then I guess it’s our fault when it doesn’t work. A healthy, mature mind recognises that some things (and, indeed, a great many things) are actually beyond our control.

A little magical thinking is harmless. But it does contain within it the seeds of individual neurosis and collective neurosis. A great deal of the expression of religion is just that. I happen to think the world is quite beautiful and mysterious enough, without having to introduce mystery that isn’t really there.