Magical Thinking

I am an experimentalist. I think we should use the scientific method to put ideas to the test and see if they enrich our lives. This experimental approach could be the best way of discovering which beliefs are good for us.

Recently I came across a new belief to test, thanks to Sonia Choquette’s book, Ask Your Guides. Her conviction that there are guiding spirits and guardian angels is about the most hopeful, benign idea I can think of. Imagine having an invisible companion—or as Sonia claims, many companions—whose only interest is your well being. She says that you can respectfully ask a type of guide called runners to smooth a path toward whatever goal you want. She described other guides, guardians, and whatnot, but the runners struck me as the best ones on which to use the scientific method. Asking for something specific to happen, a real goal, seemed eminently testable. Why not call on them and see if it worked?

Why was I doing this? As a psychologist, shouldn’t I be embarrassed to confess I am checking out spirit runners? Is not the rational and reasonable the gold standard of mental health? Actually, no. The provable should be the gold standard of psychological well being. There’s that scientific method bias of mine. If you can prove to me that your mindset brings you peace with other people and happiness within yourself, maybe it doesn’t matter which dimension it comes from. But as a scientist, I have to know why it works. And for that I do use modern psychology.

I don’t think we have to be so persnickety that we throw out the mysterious because it cannot be proven in a laboratory. If it works in the private environment of our psyche, we can use it. Plus, if runners and spirit guides do exist, I am sure they would not mind a bit if we gave them a psychological explanation as well. As far as I can tell, they are a tolerant bunch.

I don’t have to know if something is ultimately true to use it as a starting point for my experiments in living. I don’t have to reject out of hand anything magical and mysterious, like my friend who pulls back at the first mention of the supernatural as though she might catch something. I like magic. I like mystery. And I like science. I don’t see why we can’t be like the astrophysicists who are super comfortable with black holes and the Big Bang, which are just about the most magical, far-out concepts I’ve ever heard of. If they can write papers based on those ideas, I can certainly ask my runners for a parking spot.

On the day I conducted my test on runners, I was in the store looking for cooking sherry in the staggeringly overstocked wine section. As soon as I asked my runner to pave a way to the sherry, voila! Now I tried it in the card section, knowing how impossible it is to find a good card when you most need one. Sure enough, my runner led me straight to it. Two for two. By the time I successfully tried it on a parking space at my next stop in the shopping center, I was a believer.

The scientist in me had a problem with that, however. It told me that while I thought I was calling on a spirit runner, I was really tuning up a part of my brain called the reticular activating system which devoted its entire neuronal capital to finding that sherry, card, and parking spot. In other words, my scientist mind sniffed, there’s nothing supernatural about the same part of the brain that mice use to find cheese. It is why when we are considering buying a certain kind of car, we start noticing them all over the place. Reticular activating system versus runners: both equally appealing, but which do I choose?

As a psychologist, I have to go with the runners. It is a more useful psychological theory. Suppose I really need help with something. Maybe it is an important meeting coming up, or a big problem that needs a solution fast. Would I be better prepared to deal with it if I imagined 1) gooey, gray brain tissue firing electrical impulses, or 2) a super–effective spirit guide who will do its best to make sure everything turns out well? Hands down, I know I will feel better with my runner on the case. This is empirical research, after all. What works, works.

Actually, the scientists in infant attachment research have the best explanation of all, one which is almost as supernaturally divine as the idea of spirit guides. It is the idea that if we were lucky enough to have a modicum of bonding to our early caretakers, we are forever imprinted on experiencing the world as part of a dyad. We do best when we imagine we are not alone. Emotional security and mental calmness rely heavily on the sensation that we are forever in the center of someone’s emotional attention. The fact that this internal experience of being part of a twosome calms us and increases our perceptivity, is astounding in its magic. How we are able to take in that early love and turn it into a secure sense of confidence about life is a mystery on par with Big Bangs and black holes.

Now the spirit runners make sense. They are other-worldly emissaries of primary maternal love. As such, I am well within science when I lay claim to them. Feeling loved and cared about will always bring out the best in me. It is a scientific fact.

So should you really believe in runners?  How badly do you want that parking space?

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.

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