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Magical thinking: everything is about me

Few people have ever heard of "tomatoarians," a kind of food faddist. More extreme than vegetarians or vegans, a tomatoarian believes that the only thing he should eat is tomatoes. Anyone who so restricts his diet will immediately become ill from severe protein-calorie malnutrition, but tomatoarians are convinced that any symptoms they develop are because they are eating the wrong kind of tomatoes. Their solution to feeling bad? Find better, purer, more organically grown tomatoes.
In upstate New York where I grew up, "Summer Lake" was a popular summer retreat, even though it's tiny, just over a mile in diameter. John, a family friend, once showed me a crude paper mache head mounted on a 2-by-4 piece of lumber, with a life jacket attached just below the head. It looked like the sort of thing I once made in Cub Scouts: ping-pong ball eyes and a bright orange string-mop wig. In 1952, John and two friends tied a rope to the bottom, ran the rope through a pulley anchored a hundred yards from the shore, and fed the free end of the rope to a clump of bushes on shore hidden from view. This particular part of the lake was quiet, visited only by canoes. On several occasions, when a canoe came within sight of their lair, they'd let out just enough rope to let the head poke just above the surface. The boaters would scream and get away as fast as they could. The boys then pulled on the rope, and the head disappeared. Great fun! They performed their "monster" act a dozen times, always in the same spot, and then put away the apparatus. I saw it in their garage years later.

Then the fun began. There were confirmed sightings of the "Summer Lake Sea Monster" all over the lake. Eyewitnesses were irrefutable! People were terrified to go into the water. Newspaper articles described the life cycle of the Summer Lake Sea Monster: it had migrated from the sea through subterranean mountain streams, had baby sea monsters, and would soon return to the ocean. It was the talk of the town for a couple of years.

"Magical thinking" is the unrealistic, irrational thought processes of children as well as adults with certain mental illnesses. For example, young children often fear that if they become enraged with a parent, their thoughts will directly harm their mother or father. Or it's raining outside because they feel sad. The paranoid schizophrenic's delusion "the FBI is controlling my brain with radio waves" is another example. Dangerous behavior by teens starts with denying they are doing anything truly risky.

The Wikipedia entry on magical thinking focuses mostly on the magical beliefs of preindustrial cultures, such as hurting someone by burning a lock of their hair. But it's much more interesting to consider how often normal adults in our culture indulge in the same kind of thought.

A child's initial belief of magical thinking is "I can control things with my mind." Then, when I learn that doesn't work, I project that belief onto others. Thus my daddy can control everything (or the FBI). When that doesn't pan out either, then I believe that weird things I don't know much about have the power to help or hurt me in mysterious ways. ("Space aliens" are a good example.) Many people transfer their belief in magical thinking to God: He will see things their way and make it right.

Here are some common magical beliefs:

All these types of thinking assume that some imaginary force runs the universe, and it's often not friendly. But sometimes, if I try hard enough, it owes me a reward. For example, if I lose enough money in a slot machine, sooner or later it will just have to turn around and start paying out. Another common belief is that things mostly remain the same. People expect that if I flip a coin and it comes up heads five times, the next time will be heads, guaranteed.

At its core, magical thinking is believing in something you know isn't true -- or should know isn't true. This sounds dumb, but rational adults use magical thinking much more frequently than we admit.

My brother lives on the 14th floor of an apartment building. There is no 13th floor. Everyone is aware this is just a way of avoiding the superstition about the number 13. If there were a 13th floor, nobody would live on it, but everyone in the building is comfortable with the current arrangement.

My favorite example is the gambling industry. Many towns want a casino because of the buckets of money it brings in. Yet most gamblers are convinced they are the ones who can beat the system. "I'll put a quarter in that slot machine and walk out a millionaire!" Without our propensity for magical thinking, the entire gaming industry would disappear.

Here are some other examples:

"Me-TV"

Magical thinking is inherently selfish. The focus is entirely on me: my happiness, my survival, and my dreams. Money, sex, power, and control! Or the converse: I'm terrified of all those mysterious things that might hurt me. I call this "Me-TV": everything is always about me, me, me! I'm the focus, I'm center of the universe. I'm all I ever think about. The TV in my head is always tuned to me!

"Me-TV" is a prescription for suffering. Every little personal problem becomes a disaster. Life can never live up to my expectations. If only people treated me better! When I focus on all the ways the universe is letting me down, then truly "life sucks and then you die." (For example, by itself, a million dollars almost never makes someone happy.) I wind up alienated and deeply dissatisfied.

Magical thinking and spirituality

At first glance, religion or spirituality inherently involves what appears to be magical thinking -- all those angels and souls and miracles and such. It seems so scary to those of us who consider ourselves rational and concrete. How can you tell what's real and what's not? It's safest to reject it all.

I disagree. One can readily separate what Ken Wilber so helpfully calls "prerational thinking" (my term is "magical thinking") from "transrational" or "postrational" perception, or spiritual insight.

Spirituality challenges conventional thinking, points out its distortions and illusions, and leads the way to a more open sense of self. Elsewhere I address the pervasiveness of illusion in the human condition. I consider the possibility that spiritual reality is more accurate, more "real," than the conventional or "Newtonian" worldview.

But once one acknowledges the possibility of an overarching spiritual reality, where do you stop? Maybe everything I think does have sort of a reality of its own. If a physician tells a patient they have cancer, will that "traumatic diagnosis" create a self-fulfilling prophecy and kill the patient? If prayers are answered, isn't it possible that in some way the small child is right to fear his anger and fantasies of revenge? How do I know whether invisible angels are guiding our every step?

The attraction of cults is precisely their carefully circumscribed areas of astounding magical beliefs. It's as if people go from one extreme -- total cynicism -- to the other -- unthinking acceptance of anything that meets their fantasies and emotional needs.

A little reflection reveals that magical thinking and what we'll call spiritual or intuitive insight are quite different. Yes, they both begin as hunches and nonrational insight. But the focus of magical thinking is the individual in the narrow sense. It fulfills grandiose wishes. It distances me from others. The more outrageous something is, the more compelling.

The extreme form of self-absorbtion is "Me TV": all my attention is turned to myself. I experience everything that happens, all my interactions with others, as if it were a television show with me as the star. This might sound fun, but in fact exclusively focusing on myself causes enormous suffering. Every little personal problem becomes a national disaster. If only people treated me better! I wind up alienated and deeply dissatisfied.

Spiritual insight soothes the need to focus on self. It heals and promotes growth; at times that growth is painful. Its particular gift is deeply satisfying intimacy with the ordinary.

In practice, how can I tell if a particular "insight" or "revelation" I've had is genuine or simply reflects wish fulfillment? The following table highlights the differences.

 Characteristic  Magical thinking Intuitive/Spiritual insight
Mood Excited, euphoric, grandiose or paranoid Loving and peaceful or neutral; at times upsetting. Exquisite.
Personal reference "Me TV": I'm the focus and at the center of everything. My personality and needs don't seem as important
Individual separation or union Personal enhancement or protection; little relationship to others outside oneself Breaks down isolation and the damaging sense of self as separate
Wish fulfillment Yes -- or the converse, fear of disaster Issue underlying the wish tends to disappear or to be seen as unimportant or irrelevant
Sense of veracity Feels too good to be true Deep echo or ring of truth
Likelihood of becoming true or "real" Unlikely Usually mostly or partly true, but the insight may be hard to understand clearly, like the Delphic oracle. Sometimes you figure out what it means after the fact. Occasionally painfully untrue.
Ultimate purpose Enhances survival, safety, power, sex, money, etc. Promotes healing and/or growth in self or other
Willingness to relinquish People don't easily let go of these; feel essential to survival Apt to come and go on their own. Deepest insights can be transitory and evanescent but leave an echo.
Societal support Closely linked to "tribal"/ family/ cultural beliefs. Deeply rooted. Attempts to question provoke inquisitions (e.g., Ku Klux Klan, Galileo) Little societal support unless it can be translated into more acceptable magical form
Origin Rumor, casual conversation, conventional wisdom, passed down in families Show up on their own, spontaneous, often following intensive spiritual practice, deep prayer, meditation. Dreams can produce insight.
Source A mysterious, occult, or divine power or intelligence is in control. Connection to all things

Here is my resolution of this problem. First, I am suspicious of a strictly concrete view of reality. The truth is not limited to what I can see, hear, smell, or touch. But the mythical and spiritual overlay is quiet and subtle. It does not yell or scream. It requires thought, attention, appropriate skepticism, and the willingness to take my time and listen to my heart. Yet I know sometimes I'll lose it and engage in wish fulfillment and childish ideas. That's just human.


Last updated Sat, Oct 3, 2009

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©2011, James Gagné, MD