Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Love, Magic, Logic

“I was reading this thing about love,” said a teenaged girl sitting behind me on a couch in the tea shop. She was telling her friend about a recent break-up, trying to get some perspective and make herself feel better. “It was about how you can’t go looking for love, that love is more a force that just comes into your life through different portals, through your own process of self-discovery.”

“That’s so right,” said her friend.

Their conversation reminded me of an anthropology lecture I watched recently about people who have schizotypal disorder, which is a mild version of schizophrenia. According to the anthropologist, people with this disorder are prone to metamagical thinking. This term, as he explained it, really just meant magical thinking, belief in the reality of unreal things: ghosts, angels, demons, gods, unseen forces, metaphysical realities.

Of course, as the anthropologist acknowledged, you don’t need to be schizotypal to engage in some form of magical thinking. Many of us believe in unprovable phenomena; it’s just that people with healthy brains secretly know that our beliefs are delusional, while the schizos really believe in them.

As humans, when we can’t understand some aspect of our own nature and the nature of the world we live in, we can search for meaning in one of at least two ways: through logical reasoning or through metaphysical beliefs. Logic is sort of agreeable in that it provides provable answers, reproducible outcomes. But since these conclusions can only be based on empirical evidence, they are not very emotionally satisfying.

In other words, the bare facts, what we can prove, can be pretty depressing. The facts about falling in love will tell that girl on the couch that her happiness is contingent on other people and that she can’t control those people. Those people will hurt her, leave her, betray her, or, failing all of that, eventually die, unless she dies first. So she wants to find answers that draw from what she can’t prove: imaginary answers to make her feel better about the grimness of the real. Love is a force; it comes into our lives through portals.

Much of our magical thinking stems from the classical flaw in logic, post hoc ergo propter hoc, after-this-therefore-because-of this. That’s how our superstitions work: “I broke a mirror yesterday and today I got in a car accident; therefore breaking the mirror caused my car accident.”

A lot of magical thinking follows this model:

Five hundred people performed transcendental meditation to end the Vietnam War; two weeks later, U.S. troops began to pull out.

I prayed to Jesus, and he cured my son’s Leukemia.

With this type of thinking, two known facts (I prayed, my son was healed) are connected in an illogical way (my prayer healed my son). But sometimes, our magical thinking is not based on any known facts at all:

We will be rewarded for our good deeds in a future life.

There is a god, and everything happens according to his plan.

Likewise, when we think about love, our magical thinking can follow a post-hoc model of reasoning, where we connect unconnected events:

Someone I know met the person of her dreams after she stopped looking; therefore I must stop looking.

Someone I knew met the person of her dreams after she decided to suck it up and try internet dating; therefore I should try internet dating.

But a lot of what we think is based on absolutely no evidence at all:

If we put it out to the universe that we are looking for love in our lives, the universe will send us what we need.

I will meet somebody when it’s the right time.

All of this reasoning is flawed, but there’s no better way to think about it. As with all the other types of pain that accompany the paradox of being both a mind and a body—death, hunger, illness, loneliness, longing—the cold, bare logic of love is too depressing to view objectively. We need make-believe stories to make us feel okay about our physical drive to mate with other people. No one wants to receive the Hallmark card that tells us the proven facts:

You cannot control whether somebody loves you.
Even if you work your hardest at making your relationship a success,
your partner could leave you, cheat on you, or abuse you.
Even if you have the most wonderful relationship in the world,
your partner could die. Therefore,
it would be prudent to prepare to be alone.
Happy Valentines Day!

It’s just like how we don’t want to tell ourselves: we need to eat other living things to survive, and we need to kill them brutally, and even if we don’t kill animals brutally, they will kill each other brutally; these are the facts of the world. People we love get diseases and get hit by cars and die and the only causal logic to explain it is, “We are mortal, and bad things happen.”

My sister the psychologist once told me that the schizophrenics she worked with didn’t want to take their medicine. “They love their hallucinations,” she told me. “They feel exciting and important.”

We need our delusions, because the facts make sense, but it is a depressing, empty, meaningless kind of sense. We need to believe that there is an order to all this, a meaning, that it is connected by some causal logic. There’s someone out there for me, we tell ourselves. It will happen when the time is right. It’s meant to be.

Thanks Brain for the lecture recommendation.


Ted said...

It is pretty terrifying to think that we don't have complete agency in such an important thing as love.

I'm kind of wondering if metamagical thinking makes people more likely to take risks. There are sometimes big social advantages to risk-taking.

Ted said...

(Also, just went back and got caught up on Smythologies! Yum, Smythologies!)

Olive Green said...

Yay,glad you're "caught up"! (luckily you don't have to read this all in order).

Your mysterious discussion of risk-taking makes me think that it has to be the key to love; after all, you seem to be one of the most sucessful in love people that I know.

(Ted takes risks and he is in love; therefore, I must take risks to fall in love!)

kristoph said...

we live as we dream, alone

Olive Green said...

Perhaps my favorite Gang of Four song/Joseph Conrad quote.

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