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The Brain and Magical Thinking

SPOILER ALERT: If you believe in Santa Claus, you might not want to read any further!!!

What do Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Leprechauns, Unicorns and my “lucky” putter all have in common? They are all examples of “magical thinking.” You might think that belief in magical things would fade away in today’s modern age, reserved only for children and “primitive” tribes. But this simply isn’t true. Magical thinking is exhibited by everyone at one time or another. In fact, it may be a coping mechanism invented by the brain to help us explain the world. According to Psychology Today, magical thinking is “seeing causality in coincidence.” We know that our brains have evolved to become “survival machines,” so how does an illogical belief keep us alive?

Some magical beliefs are useful to society

One key to understanding why magical thinking exists is to understand the brain’s capacity to predict future events based on past experience. The brain does this by paying attention to changes in the environment and linking current and past events together to build a reliable model of the world. A model is used to explain the world and it is only useful so long as it helps us predict the future. Many of our beliefs about learning, formed before we had the benefit of fMRIs and other live brain imaging techniques, were widely adopted because they gave us a predictable way to approach our work just as many parents perpetuate the Santa Clause myth because it helps keep young children focused on good behavior. Karl Marx is often believed to have made a similar statement about organized religion being the opiate of the people, although reading the full quote reveals a far more nuanced explanation. Every age has its myths. We don’t give up magical thinking when we become more technically advanced; we simply find new myths to believe or adapt existing myths to our new model.

Other magical beliefs are purely personal

Then there are beliefs like my new putter. When the grip needed replacing I asked the golf pro for a recommendation and he suggested a very wide grip. He gave me a logical-sounding explanation that included a lot of technical info about angle of attack and taking my wrists out of the swing. I don’t really know if that explanation is true, but I chose to believe it and soon became convinced that my putting had improved. I really can’t tell if it is the science behind the design of that grip or just my boosted confidence that has given me improved results. In fact, since I didn’t do a controlled before and after study I really don’t know if my putting has really improved at all. But don’t take that magic grip away from me! Sports is full of magical thinking. Curses, cures, rally caps, lucky clothing or equipment, pre-game regimens and more have all been used by athletes to give them an edge. Nearly every golfer I know talks to the ball, as though saying “go baby go” or “get over that water” will somehow change the laws of physics. But don’t throw out all your magical beliefs just yet. A study conducted at the University of Cologne revealed that people who believed their golf ball was “lucky” actually improved their putting results by almost two strokes! It also worked when people were asked to bring in their own lucky charm. When these charms were removed performance dropped.

Why do we persist in our magical thinking?

So why does our survival machine continue to create myths in the absence of or even in direct conflict to facts? One theory is that these myths help our brain perform its primary function – to keep us alive. If we stress too much on things we can’t explain, we may not be as decisive and confident as we need to be to perform. Another theory focuses on the brain’s capacity to discern patterns, a very useful survival skill. Notice though that if a scientist makes a statement that can’t be proven it is considered a theory. Who’s to say these aren’t just more myths?

The brain is still a gigantic mystery

I think one of the most dangerous myths of our day is the belief that all knowledge is knowable if we just work hard enough, have the right equipment, use the right computer program or the latest smartphone app. The truth is that the inner workings of our brain are still shrouded in mystery and likely to remain so for some time to come. While we are getting closer to understanding it all the time, there is no guarantee that we will ever know it all. Neuroscience right now is a bit like John Godfrey Saxes’ poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Margie Meacham


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