Monday, September 21, 2009

Magical Thinking

I first came across the term Magical Thinking when I read Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking. (Wonderful book, made me cry.) Never having studied psychology, I assumed she invented the term to describe her irrational connections and thoughts while she struggled to cope with her husband's death.

Now I learn that Magical Thinking describes a whole host of unscientific reasoning that every culture on earth practices. Magic and shamanism, creative visualization, positive thinking, viewing life as a metaphor, pretend, hero worship--all are examples. In fact, Psychology Today recently published an article on Magical Thinking, which is how I learned about it.

And what I find most interesting in that article is that the ONLY people who don't practice Magical Thinking are the clinically depressed. Who wants to be in that cohort?

Here's the quote, given in a section of the article discussing rituals and how we use them to give ourselves an illusion of control:

In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as "depressive realism," haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

My dog tries to engage me in magical thinking. These last two days she has conducted a blitz campaign to convince me, against all logic, that scratching her back before beginning any activity will enhance my success and enjoyment of the activity. If I stand, sit, type, read, prepare to eat or drink, she's there--hopping onto my lap or the nearest surface, swaying her back down to invite my fingertips to the best spot. "Go ahead," her anxious eyes plead. "Everything will be better if you scratch. I promise!"

Actually, the magical thinking is on my part, imputing all those motives to a dog.

So what does all this have to do with my usual topics? Well, it makes the Celts and other cultures less removed from us in their thinking. So they were superstitious? You want superstitious? Watch Nomar GarciaParra's movements before he curls into his batting stance and waits for the pitch.

And what about those emails we're afraid not to forward to five people in five minutes? How many of us get suckered into arguments on the radio, without having any verified facts at hand to guide our passions? We're magical thinkers to our core, just like the ancient Celts, Romans, Egyptians, Athabaskans, or anybody else.

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