Monday, November 26, 2012

magical thinking

 ...magical thinking is "a fundamental dimension of a child's thinking." --Zusne and Jones

Magical thinking is a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend physical connections. Magical thinking invests special powers and forces in things and sees them as symbols on various levels. According to anthropologist Dr. Phillips Stevens Jr., "the vast majority of the world's peoples ... believe that there are real connections between the symbol and its referent, and that some real and potentially measurable power flows between them." He believes there is a neurobiological basis for this, though the specific content of any symbol is culturally determined. ("Magical Thinking in Complementary and Alternative Medicine," Skeptical Inquirer, 2001, November/December.)


One of the driving principles of magical thinking is the notion that things that resemble each other are causally connected in some way that defies scientific testing (the so-called law of similarity, that like produces like, that effect resembles cause). Another driving principle of magical thinking is the belief that "things that have been either in physical contact or in spatial or temporal association with other things retain a connection after they are separated" (the so-called law of contagion) (James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion; Stevens). Think of relics of saints that are supposed to transfer spiritual energy. Think of psychic detectives claiming that they can get information about a missing person by touching an object that belongs to the person (psychometry). Or think of the pet psychic who claims she can read your dog's mind by looking at a photo of the dog. Or think of Rupert Sheldrake's morphic resonance, the idea that there are mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and collective memories within species. (Coincidentally, Sheldrake also studies psychic dogs.)

According to psychologist James Alcock, "'Magical thinking' is the interpreting of two closely occurring events as though one caused the other, without any concern for the causal link. For example, if you believe that crossing your fingers brought you good fortune, you have associated the act of finger-crossing with the subsequent welcome event and imputed a causal link between the two." In this sense, magical thinking is the source of many superstitions. Alcock notes that because of our neurobiological makeup we are prone to magical thinking and that therefore critical thinking is often at a disadvantage.

Zusne and Jones (Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition, 1989, p. 13) define magical thinking as the belief that
(a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or (b) that one's thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information.
Three of the more obvious examples of magical thinking are astrology, Jung's notion of synchronicity, and Hahnemann's notion of homeopathy. Other examples would be applied kinesiology, graphology (Beyerstein), palmistry, and psychokinesis.

Other sciences have led us away from superstition and magical thinking; parapsychology, on the other hand, tries to lead us into it. Dean Radin, a foremost apologist for parapsychology, notes that "the concept that mind is primary over matter is deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy and ancient beliefs about magic." However, instead of saying that it is now time to move forward and give up the magical thinking of childhood, he rebuffs "Western science" for rejecting such beliefs as "mere superstition."

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