Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?

A great article in the New York Times today about magical thinking and superstition -- a topic about which I'm well versed.

Here's a snippet from the article:

Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at
Washington University in St. Louis.

Perhaps this means I didn't actually scar my children for life the other day when I showed them how to rub the fat belly of the Laughing Buddha for good luck at the Chinese restaurant or when I taught them how to make a wish before throwing pennies into the fountain at the mall.


Anonymous said...

And there REALLY is a Santa Claus

Jill said...

Us Catholics are a particularly magical people. I remember in elementary when the statue of the crying Madonna came to my church on a visiting tour of the US. Then, of course, there was the little vial of water my Grandma had that came from somewhere magical. . . Lourdes or something. I used to keep watching my palms for the stigmata. You never know.

Pendullum said...

My husband taunts me with my real anxieties brought on my the old wives' tale that you can not pass on the stairs of someone's house, including your own, as it means that you are going to have a terrible fight...
So my husband always tauntsme with this weal link...
How warped am I???

I blame my mother... When in doubt,,,
So Yeah,Stacy you have..
and so have I!
But we are in good company!
; )

Her Bad Mother said...

I like Jill's point - religion (Catholicism is notable here) is filled with magical thinking. Always has been. Part of what draws people to it. And it's part of what can be really healing about it - I think that the scarring comes when one has to confront what is realistic about certain religions (the politics, etc.)

Kate said...

I had never really seen the connection between religion and magical thinking. I suppose now that it is pointed out in this article, it all makes sense.

Seeing that I am the product of 12 years of Catholic school, it now makes sense that I am quite superstitious!

Sandy D. said...

What's also interesting is what you get when actual OCD and religion intersect - rituals that start with a group ritual, then go off in increasingly complicated and over-pious ways. Apparently priests and other religious professionals have gotten better at recognizing and dealing with this. But it makes you wonder about some of the historic saints.