Magical Thinking

March 25, 2014

magic2What is magical thinking?  It involves the notion that the laws of science can sometimes be overcome with sufficient mental or spiritual force.  In such instances a miracle is said to occur; religious people may claim that there was divine intervention.

Within the animal kingdom, magical thinking seems to be restricted to humans, though we don’t know for sure what non-human animals are thinking.  In general, animals seem to be pragmatic, living according to established behaviors, whether passed on from parents to offspring, or known instinctively.  Instinct is not magical, but based on principles of genetics and inheritance.   

How and when did magical thinking arise in human history?  It seems to be present in the earliest hunter gatherer societies, but then became institutionalized in the form of “religion” in early agricultural communities of the Middle East.  In such communities, groups of human individuals came to believe collectively in the existence of mysterious powers in the external world, as well as within our inner mental world.  Shamans and priests with presumed spiritual powers interpreted external events like earthquakes, solar and lunar eclipses, rainbows, etc., and internal events like dreams and daytime visions.

What we refer to as “religion” or “organized religion” originated 3000-4000 years ago in South Asia and the Middle East: the Punjab region (Indus River origins) in present day India and Pakistan; ancient Canaan (present day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon); the Nile River valley in present day Egypt.  The earliest of our present world religions were Hinduism (in India) and Judaism (in Israel).  Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam came later, Buddhism about 2500 years ago, Christianity about 2000 years ago, and Islam, the youngest of the major world religions, about 1400 years ago.

Religions codified magical thinking in books like the Vedas and Upanishads (Hinduism), Pali Canon and Sutras (Buddhism), Bible (Judaism and Christianity), and Koran (Islam).  Believers study these texts and thereby pass on certain magical concepts from generation to generation.

The early Greeks had a pantheon of gods that magically controlled the world: e.g., Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysius, Hera, Hermes, Pluto, Poseidon, and Zeus.  However, Greek religion eventually gave way to modern science, beginning with the work of such thinkers as Anaximander, Archimedes, Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, and Thales.  Science also developed in China and in the Middle East (Baghdad).

Science is strictly opposed to magical thinking.  Scientific laws are based on controlled experiments, which can be either proven or disproven.  Replication by others is critical in establishing proof.  Scientific principles can later be disproven by an abundance of evidence.  No such requirement for proof occurs with magic or religion.  Religion can be neither proven nor disproven.

Science has developed methodically, step-by-step (with some interruptions), for the past 2500 years or so, since its early origins in Greece, China, the Arab world, and elsewhere.  Initially, science was directed toward the material world of objects and things.  Within the past hundred years or so, science as neuroscience has turned its attention to our inner subjective world.

During several decades as a neuroscience researcher and teacher (1967-1989), I learned and taught about how our nervous system re-creates the external world within our brain, generating internal maps of external 3D space, as well as specific sensory features such as color, shape, movement, sound frequency, smell, taste, and skin sensation, including pain.  Facial features, specific buildings, familiar objects, etc., are mapped within the cerebral cortex, as are emotions and autobiographical memories, including traumatic experiences.

Neuroscience has shown us that we have a rich interior world available for our use.  At any given moment in time, our conscious awareness can only deal with a tiny fragment of our available memory stores.  The rest sit filed away in our unconscious mind, waiting to be called upon.

We don’t yet understand how dreaming works, or why we dream, but clearly dreaming is a regular mechanism for exercising our vast unconscious memory stores.  Freud thought that dreaming was used for imaginary fulfillment of unsatisfied wishes.  Jung thought that dreaming was a means of communicating with a spiritual realm shared by other people, both living and dead (the collective unconscious).

Dreaming seems to be a form of thinking, feeling, and even acting within time and space.  One might well call it magical thinking, since we can do things in dreams, such as traveling in time and space, that would violate rules of scientific possibility during wakefulness.

Dreaming is an attractive modality for dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), since it lends itself to creative, even magical, solutions.  The trauma survivor is allowed to fantasize like a child, thereby rapidly overcoming years of resistance to healing.  All kinds of magic are permitted in dreams.  In a prosaic world of limits, restrictions, and scientific rules, dreaming allows us to be free, as free as a bird.  Once free in our dreams, somehow we can also be free in our waking lives.  PTSD may even be a specific disorder of dreaming.  If so, then dream revision therapy may be the most direct route to healing.

  • rae edelson

    Important analysis, respectful to the historical and philosophical and
    theological issues involved in magical thinking. The segue to dreams and the
    usefulness of them to heal, and free us in everyday life was excellent and
    balanced. appreciated, Rae Edelson