Something to Think About

"I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Friday, August 2, 2013

Magical Thinking - Healthy or Harmful?

I've recently been examining the idea of magical thinking.  Magical thinking occurs when a human being sees a cause and effect relationship when there is no scientific basis for it. For example, an athlete who decides that there is a relationship between eating a particular meal prior to a game and winning that game.  Now, there is no proof of an actual connection between eating that meal and winning a game but if it has happened a couple times it is all that it takes for our minds to see a pattern.

Researchers believe that this sort of thinking might be hardwired in our brains. It makes sense that our ancestors who jumped to the conclusion that a rustle in the bushes meant there was danger had a better chance of survival than those who took the time to contemplate whether it was the wind or something else before reacting. Survivors were more likely to live long enough to reproduce, after all, so this would be an advantage.

Very young children have little understanding of how things actually work in the world.  This is why infants are so delighted with a game of Peek-a-boo.  They don't realize that a person is still there when their face is covered so, in their minds, we are appearing and disappearing right in front of them!  No wonder they are so amused!

As we age, we get a firmer grasp of reality but it isn't until we are about 8 that we have the same comprehension of the difference between fantasy and reality that adults do. This doesn't mean that we still might find ourselves jumping to conclusions or seeing a connection where one does not exist.  Remember that even the most skeptical person among us is prone to see patterns where there are none.

Some beliefs are passed on to us by our parents, family members or communities like the belief in Santa Claus, fairies or religious deities. Others are created by our own minds making connections or seeing patterns where they might not exist. For example, when something bad happens to someone who has been nasty towards me I might think, if only for a second, that a force like "karma" had something to do with it or that the universe was getting back at them.

The question I have is whether or not this sort of thinking should be encouraged.  Is it a bad thing in itself to hold irrational beliefs?

Matthew Hutson, the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane, argues that magical thinking improves our lives. He says that skeptics don't enjoy life as much as those who are less skeptical.  I'm not sure that I can agree with this. While I can enjoy a piece of fiction that takes place in a world where real magic exists, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld books or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, I can also recognize that those places do not actually exist in the real world. I hold no delusions about this at all, but this fact does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of the books. It does, however, keep me from trying to use a carved wooden wand to protect myself from a poisonous snake or believe that my luggage is going to sprout legs and follow me when I'm on a trip. I don't find this unhealthy at all.

It occurs to me that we certainly do seem to go to great lengths sometimes to believe in things that are unlikely, unproven and unrealistic, don't we? I've heard people bend over backwards to justify a particular belief instead of just admitting that there is no scientific proof to back it up but that they prefer to hold it anyway. While I can understand the attraction of holding certain irrational beliefs wouldn't the world be a better place if all of us made an effort to live our lives as rationally as possible and save the fantasy for entertainment purposes? After all, the real world has real problems for us to deal with that we should concentrate on solving, doesn't it?  It seems to me it is easier to come up with a solution to a problem if our methods of solving them are also based in reality.

What do you think?

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