The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane Paperback – Feb 26 2013
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“In this wickedly funny and deeply clever book, Matthew Hutson makes a radical claim: All of us, whether we accept it or not, believe in magic. Without these intuitions, he says, we would hardly be human. Through vivid examples and cutting-edge science, Hutson presents a provocative new theory of how we make sense of the world.” — Paul Bloom, Ph.D. author of Descartes’ Baby and How Pleasure Works
This is a book that you pick up, but can’t put down. Hutson, intelligently and entertainingly, gives us the best kind of book: one that gives us insight to our very core. Highly recommended!” — Ori Brafman, co-author of Sway and Click
“Matthew Hutson promises to convince the most hard-core skeptics and rationalists that they believe in magic, and he succeeds—with wit and clarity and scientific rigor.” — Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
About the Author
Matthew Hutson has a BS in cognitive neuroscience from Brown University and an MS in science journalism from MIT. He lives in New York City.
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Magical Thinking is a term used by psychologists and anthropologists to describe non-scientific and a-rational thought patterns. I sort of like to think of the term as having 3 generations of use. First generation usage begins when anthropologists coined the term to describe how primitive tribes thought about magical / non-scientific cause & effect. Think voodoo and witch doctors and "sympathetic magic." The second generation of use began when psychologists used the same term to describe how everyone, no matter how modern, or scientific engages in these thought patterns. You don't have to go to Borneo to study magical thinking, you can study it in your next door neighbor. Yet with this 2nd generation of usage or study, the psychologists involved still thought of Magical Thinking as irrationality. It was still a negative term to describe cognitive flaws, if you will. What I'm calling the 3rd generation of usage is marked by a dawning understanding that Magical Thinking actually underlies a lot of our humanity, how it is, in many ways, vital to psychological health.
This book, as you may have guessed from the title, is a look at Magical Thinking from that third gen perspective. And anytime someone praises a-rational or non-scientific thought patterns, you can be sure that someone is going to get their panties in a bunch. Hence the polarized reviews. But think of it this way: if belief in essences and souls and teleology and irrational commitments are all essential to our humanity, then understanding how these beliefs function is, in a very profound way, necessary to really understand ourselves and our fellow man. And this book is the finest source for exploring these issues currently on the market.
If you buy it, you may have quibbles with the author's positions here and there, but you'll be richly rewarded for the effort. This is a first class book and highly recommended.
Enter magical thinking.
In the words of author Matthew Hutson:
"Magical thinking provides a sense of control. The value of an illusory sense of control is that it reduces anxiety and increases a feeling of agency, which can spur you to seize real control. Second, magical thinking provides meaning. There's meaning as in comprehension--understanding how things happen or how to do things--which allows for control. But there's also meaning as in a sense of purpose--grasping why things happen or why anything is worth doing. This is the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning and lets you sleep at night... These habits of mind guide us through the world every day. In very basic ways they provide a sense of control, of purpose, of connection, and of meaning, and without them we couldn't function." (pp. 239, 9)
In other words, a spoonful (/neocortex-ful) of magical thinking helps the existential realities go down. And, as Matthew convincingly conveys, we all think magically--whether we believe it or not. He's divided the cerebral magic into seven (lucky number!) different forms: (1) imbuing essences into objects (your kid's blanky, your wedding ring, an autographed book); (2) psychologically connecting symbols to their real-life counterparts (imagine the difference between throwing darts at a picture of your mother vs. a picture of Hitler); (3) engaging in superstitious rituals and harnessing luck through physical acts (avoiding walking under ladders, knocking on wood, wearing your lucky shirt); (4) believing we can control matter with our minds (prayer, transcendent thinking, sending lucky vibes through your TV as you boisterously cheer on your favorite team during the playoffs); (5) denying our finiteness (try imagining the absolute abyss of your own death); (6) treating inanimate objects as conscious intentional ones (who hasn't yelled at their rebelliously slow computer or sworn at a traffic light that spitefully turned red?); (7) assigning meaning to random coincidences and natural events (everything happens for a reason, right?). So, even if you don't believe *in* magic, you do think *with* it.
Speaking of magic--I experienced this book as being quite magical. From page one, I was under its spell. I found the content so fascinating, the writing so skillful, and the humor so right-up-my-alley (I may have even laughed out loud more than a few times while reading this book). And, the magic of this book continued long after I finished the book: its contents have had some serious staying power and have helped me refine the way I make peace with those existential realities.
In the introduction of the book, Matthew shares his intent for writing this book:
"I'm dissecting the sacred because the same magical thinking that leads to sentimentality, altruism, and self-efficacy can also lead to vilification, fatalism, irrational exuberance, or even depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychosis. By tearing down everything holy and pointing out the sand it was built on, I'm hoping we can learn how to build meaning back up in constructive ways. I don't want to eradicate magical thinking. I want to harness it." (p. 4)
In my opinion, he accomplished his mission. Magically so, even.
The author, Matthew Hutson, has a great style and quick wit I very much enjoyed. He took topics such as brain chemistry, neuroscience, anthropology, evolutionary theory, and comparative published behavioral studies, and somehow made it all entertaining.
Specific topics discussed included the possible reasons why we tend to have rituals and superstitions, especially in situations where we have no control. In the author's view it's all attempt to have some influence over events, if even imagined.
The touchy subject of religion is also discussed in the form of questions to ponder. Why do the various physical forms of a supreme being tend to look like the followers? Why do we tend to give credit to God for good events and blame humans for the bad? Do we long to believe because we are afraid to die? Is it an expression of our need for control and purpose to envision someone looking out for you that also has expectations for your behavior? Sometimes the questions alone, without an answer, are worth the thought exercise. I loved it.
In a tangential discussion to religion, why is it most people try to find meaning and purpose to existence by thinking in terms of biological immortality, (having children), and symbolic immortality, (life achievements), or both if possible?
While reading this book I thought of two others I greatly enjoyed: Nassim Taleb's classic "The Black Swan", and Robert Rubin's book, "In an Uncertain World". The former dealt with the huge impact of random and unlikely events on society and the individual, and the latter on the importance of probabilistic thinking, or calculating the odds of events, and how to enhance your chances of a positive outcome in business and life. This book combined such thoughts along with a little bit of evolutionary theory: why we have evolved to think irrationally at times.
It takes a lot for a book to be added to my personal library. It has to entertaining, filled with quality thoughts, and adds something to my understanding of the human condition. It also has to be worthy of a second or third read later in time. With that in mind, this book earned a spot on my shelf. It changed the way I look at the world around me, a rare event for me. It was simply outstanding.
a particularly annoying one is one that is very fashionable at the moment. humans don't have free will because EEG tests and MRI scans show brain activity before our consciousness is aware that we are going to do something. the conclusion by the author being that it proves we are automata and our consciousness is just fooled into thinking we made the decision. the problems with this are many.
in the first place he is confusing conscious control with will. if we make an unconscious decision before we are conscious of it, it doesn't mean we are automata because our unconscious is us as much as our consciousness. if we were getting directions from aliens or CIA computers or whatnot, ok, then maybe we wouldn't have free will. but if our own mind made the decision, whether conscious or not, it is still us. that we are not consciously aware of it does not make it not ours. after all, it is us who "train" our unconscious. we can ride a bike home unconsciously --we know how to keep our balance, pedal, make turns and make our way home down a familiar path without having to consciously think about it. that's because we taught ourselves how to ride the bike and get home in the first place. we trained our unconscious to easily make those decisions for us so keeping our balance etc. would not have to be something we have to have our conscious focused on. so while we may not be consciously aware of how we pedaled our way home, it's still an activity we willed to happen.
another problem with the no-free-will belief is that it's based on MRI's and EEG's. the measurements that MRI's and EEG's take are hard science, but the interpretations of those measurements are an ever evolving art form. a certain part of our brain lights up on a screen and gets classified as "that's the part of your brain that decides X and Y" but in all truth we actually don't know. it's just an educated guess based on A usually happens before B therefore A is the cause of B --ironically a fallacy that's explored in the book in a different context. it might be an educated guess but it's still just a guess and to base your whole life philosophy on what is still basically a very young science is a beginner's mistake. the author just takes the magical thinking of the shamans wearing white lab coats as hard truth from the heavens and doesn't make much of an attempt to delve into the the vague reality of MRI and EEG interpretations.
a thing to consider is that in the past few years (less than a decade) scientist have discovered that the fatty tissues in the brain actually communicate with each other through complex chemical means that we are barely starting to figure out. this fatty tissue composes the majority of our brains and its activity is not measured by EEG's or MRI's. that neurons and their firings have such prominence in contemporary brain science is only due to the fact that we are able to measure that activity, but the fact is that at this moment we are not able to measure the majority of activity in our brains. MRI's and EEG's only cover a small sliver of what's going on and they only measure certain activities and we have no way of truly knowing what exactly those activities mean. they are great tools to ascertain things like brain damage and such but using them as mind readers still requires a leap of faith. there is still much magical thinking involved in this area of studies and to use it to prove theories about magical thinking is a bit magical in and of itself.
the book does have some good moments and it's a fast breezy read, so i wouldn't discount it all together but in the end it's another malcolm gladwell style book without gladwell's incisive observations or deft ability to communicate the marvels of the world in a marvelous way. the author's humor is painfully cheesy and it detracts from the reading instead of adding to it. i would also advice him to quit referencing science fiction novels that he read in his youth for no other reason than that it's just corny. also his reliance on his own dude tastes are a bit of a hindrance. while his review of sport fan and fishermen superstitions is interesting he just glosses over the myriads of magical beliefs held by many new agers --a crowd whose size is a lot bigger than superstitious fishermen or superstitious sports fans and who rely more on those beliefs to make serious life decisions. as you might guess, the new age beliefs are mainly held by women while the sport fans and fishermen who believe in jinxes are mainly men. there are whole industries based on magical beliefs but he seems to have barely dipped his toe in those waters.
all in all a promising premise and some good content but worth a read only if you want a quick read and borrowed the book from a library. i would have given it a 2.5 stars rating but you can't do half stars on amazon. with that said, it felt much safer to round out to 2 instead of 3 stars.
I like the way it's written, almost conversational in tone. I like the studies cited, the research and how it's presented. I like how it's organized. I like the personal and often hilarious flavor to the narrative, including stories and experiences from the author's life to reveal where he's coming from. I really like the sense that the author is aware that your mileage may vary. I find a lot of books too rigid in their perspective, and this is especially frustrating in areas of psychology and philosophy, where it's obvious that people's perspectives vary wildly.
I had so much fun reading this book; it was hard to put down. I found it enlightening beyond my wildest expectations. But though I only came for answers, I felt inspired and empowered. I felt I could not only understand magical thinking's use and impact on individuals, history, the species and culture, but also find awareness and acceptance of it in myself. At the end of the book I had more conscious choices over how I experience most everything I perceive. I also found myself thinking magically without effort. It felt much like when I read Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi's `Flow,' drawing the curtain to reveal an amazing experience I'm already having. And now can enjoy more.
Rarely does a book to have such profound and lasting positive effect on me and my view of the world. I feel fortunate to have come across it as I did, relieved I was in the right place to really get the message, and delighted it was written in such an appealing style.
I found `The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking' enlightening, entertaining, inspiring and empowering beyond words. Your mileage may vary, of course.