Friday, December 2, 2011

Stop magical thinking; get rid of obsessions

Obsessions and obsessive compulsive disorder
Obsessions are thoughts that recur and persist despite efforts to ignore or supress them.  The obsessions or intrusive thoughts vary in their clarity and vividness. A relatively vague obsession could involve a general sense of disarray or tension accompanied by a belief that life cannot proceed as normal while the imbalance remains. A more intense obsession could be a preoccupation with the thought or image of someone close to them dying. Other obsessions concern the possibility that someone or something such as God, the Devil, or disease will harm either the person or the people or things that the person cares about.

Some people experience sexual obsessions that may involve intrusive thoughts or images of kissing, touching, fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, incest and rape with strangers, acquaintances, parents, children, family members, friends, coworkers, animals and religious figures, and can include heterosexual or homosexual content with persons of any age. With other intrusive, unpleasant thoughts or images, most normal people have some disquieting sexual thoughts at times. But people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD] may attach extraordinary significance to the thoughts. People with OCD understand that their notions do not correspond with reality. In spite of this insight they feel mental tension and guilt because the ideas coming up against their will are unacceptable and highly objectionable and they give much importance to these ideas.

Magical thinking
Obsessions and magical thinking are closely related. In fact, the obsession originates from magical thinking. Magical thinking is nonscientific cause-effect reasoning characterized by such ideas as the ability of the human mind to affect the physical world. Magical thinking can occur when one simply does not understand possible causes. British science fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke [] suggested that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It can also occur in response to situations that are largely unpredictable or chaotic, such as a coin toss, as well as in situations that one has little or no control over, especially those are emotionally invested in.

The chapter on Magic and Religion [] in The Golden Bough by James George Frazer says that magic is more like science than religion. Both scientific and religious worldviews are mechanistic and based on causality, but the former is distinguished by the scientific method and by skepticism. People use magic to attempt to explain things that science has not acceptably explained, or to attempt to control things that science cannot.

According to Frazer, magical thinking depends on two laws, viz. the law of similarity and the law of contagion. The law of similarity suggests that things similar things tend to appear grouped together. The principle of similarity states that like produces like. For example, in Voodoo rituals the houngan (Voodoo priest) will draw a representation of the spirit he or she wishes to invoke. The belief that creating an imitation of the spirit will help summon the spirit is a central part of Voodoo and an excellent illustration of the law of similarity. Another example is the ancient Incan attachment to gold. The Inca people worshipped the sun. They called gold the blood of the sun and revered it above all other materials, simply because it shares two properties with the sun; it has a bright yellow color and it refuses to be tarnished. As a representation of the sun, they assumed it to have some unseen relationship with the sun.

Frazer's principle of contagion holds that if two things were once in contact, they retain a degree of influence over each other. The most common example of this is the old belief that if one of your enemies obtains some article of your clothing or a piece of your body (hair, nail clippings, etc.), he or she has the power to work evil magic on you. By the law of contagion, the object which was once in contact with you can still affect you, for good or bad. Now, if this concept is applied to the dual notion of the body and spirit, many basic practices concerning deceased humans can be explained.

The idea that an individual is composed of two separate elements, of a body and a spirit, is older than history. Now, the body and the spirit, if they are to make an individual, would seem to be in contact. So, by the principle of contagion, the dead body would retain influence over the spirit, the real essence of the person. If things that happen to the corpse have a similar effect on the spirit, there are very good reasons to treat the body well. Thus follow the ancient practices of burying the corpse in clean cloth after washing and perfuming, the interment of practical and luxury goods, and various means to prolong the existence of the body.

Shades of this had come down to us in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic prohibitions against mutilating the body. The Hindus anoint the body with oil. The Christians do extensive cosmetic work on the deceased in funerals.

One must also consider that the spirit retains some influence over the body. This brings up another idea which has been greatly influential in human culture; the dead can affect the physical world. So the well-being of the deceased's soul was reason to pamper the corpse. The thought of an angered spirit with the ability to turn said anger into physical action had provided another motivation to treat the corpse with dignity.

A common form of magical thinking is that one's own thoughts can influence events, either beneficially, by creating good luck, or for the worse, as in divine punishment for "bad thoughts". Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis reflected on these phenomena in his essay, "The Uncanny". []  

Fusion of thought and action
Rationalists often claim that they are devoid of magical thinking. But fact is contrary to their conviction. I proved this in a gathering of hundred and odd rationalists. I asked them to write on a piece of paper the name of the person most beloved. After they had written the name, I asked all of them to write below the name these words: “this person would die soon in an accident.” Sixty per cent of the rationalists assembled there couldn’t write those words. They believed that writing of those words would harm the beloved person. This is a typical example of magical thinking or the fusion of thought and action.

These beliefs reflect an incorrect understanding of the boundaries of self. One can indeed will to move one's own arm, but not the ashtray on the table. The thinking that one’s thoughts would cause harm or good luck to others is called magical thinking. There occurs a thought action fusion and is the main culprit in causing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Because of thought action fusion the people with OCD give much importance to the irrelevant and unacceptable thoughts coming up to the consciousness against the individual's will. So, the first and foremost task of the therapist treating a case of OCD is correcting the magical thinking of the individual.


  1. so. how the hell to correct the magical thinking?

  2. i am not arguing with your view... but
    the persons who refused to write what you asked did not give in to magical thinking.
    What they refused was to do was to give in to irrationality that you were setting them up to do.

    In the exercise you came out as the most mentally unstable followed by the 40 % who agreed to do what you asked.

  3. Hi
    How do we get rid of Magical Thinking.
    Its a painful thing.

  4. amazing article!!can you comment on emotional contamination ?

  5. This is a brilliant brilliant post. Thank you.

  6. Agreed, this is a really great post. Thanks

  7. I thought I had accidentally highlighted the fusion and thought paragraph because of its background color, in an instant, I came to the conclusion that this paragraph had extra special meaning for me. I have a terrible case of OCD, and had no idea it extended to my magical thinking. Wish there was a cure.

  8. Hi i found this post very accurate and im sure i have magical thinking and OCD couse i believe girl im in loved with will die couse i once had a dream of her hit by a car and then i seen flashing images of my future and now every now and then when something in my life happens i start to believe if i do or dont do something it will couse her to get hit by a car at a raining night just like in my dream i would do anything to get rid of that feeling im geting psychotic i hope i will cure myself before i really sin badly