Magical thinkers

Magical thinkers yuk it up: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki believes the AIDS crisis is overblown and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks you can defeat 1,000 per cent inflation by beating up small shopkeepers.

Mark Chilvers / PANOS

Magical thinkers yuk it up: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki believes the AIDS crisis is overblown and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks you can defeat 1,000 per cent inflation by beating up small shopkeepers.

Mark Chilvers / PANOS

Magical thinkers yuk it up: South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki believes the AIDS crisis is overblown and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks you can defeat 1,000 per cent inflation by beating up small shopkeepers.

Mark Chilvers / PANOS

Psychoanalysis went on many strange trips – but provides an imaginative understanding of how some people function. It may not necessarily be ‘true’, but for now it helps explain a lot. In fact, it’s been so good at explaining things that it has become the theoretical core of the advertising industry and the modern state. It does this by informing an infantile narcissistic culture, that relentlessly promotes super-individualism. People are enticed into economic dependence on maintaining an outward semiology (labels, brands, tattoos, hair styles) that controls the way they feel. It is no surprise that the most influential programme on the planet now is a cartoon, _The Simpsons_, and we have come to believe that the ability to ‘name’ something gives one power over it.

This kind of thinking, in the standard psychoanalytic canon, is known as ‘magical thinking’, and suggests that there are in fact two ways to think. One is ‘logical and verbalized, and functions according to the reality principle’. The other is ‘archaic, pictorial, magical and functions according to the pleasure principle’. Daydreams are very much part of the second type, substituting something nice for painful reality. This can also embrace the notion of magical gestures. Thus, if you feel ashamed, by looking away or covering your eyes with your hand you mean ‘nobody’s to look at me’. In a similar vein, children really believe that they can’t be seen if they cannot see. In his core psychoanalytic discourse, Otto Fenichel (_The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis_, 1946) suggested that one child ‘had the idea that when the conductor closes his eyes the train passes through a tunnel’. Thus the train plunging into darkness reflects the (parent-like) conductor’s actions and powers. For the child this is a magical thinking process (i.e. if I close my eyes I can’t be seen, if the conductor closes his eyes the world goes dark). A touch far-fetched, perhaps, but that’s just the problem for any sensible person.

Made-up world

Magical thinking is seen as part of what is also called ‘primary processing’ – thinking that takes place in the unconscious. In this process, abstract or ‘made-up’ images take on a real quality, as if they have been given some neurological truth. Thus one thinks something, and it can take on the perceptual quality of being real – a hologram-like experience, something external to oneself. The fleeting thought becomes something concrete and solid, generating notions of telepathy (reading people’s thoughts or experiencing other people’s thoughts as, physically, inside your head), or even Carrie-like telekinesis. You think and something happens. Thus: ‘If I get past that lamp-post before the next car overtakes me, I’ll be cured of cancer.’ At the broader political level this translates into deciding that if a policy is good and morally-driven, whatever results must also be a good thing.

Why do people think like this? The whole point of growing up is to get away from these primitive thought patterns, to generate a reality-based response to the world around us. Those who can’t do that remain dissatisfied and primitive in the way they think, the way they relate and the way they behave. Some of them even spend decades in psychoanalysis, for reasons that most people can’t fathom. However, if you consider that magical thinking is a kind of psychological defence against reality then you begin to see how it works. For example, such a psychological defence can make the elusive certain and the terrifying unterrifying.

If taken too far, of course, and becoming ‘ego dystonic’ (that is to say, not in accord with a realistic awareness of how you feel instinctively) you can become separated from your sense of self and actually psychotic. This has been part of the psychoanalytic understanding of serious psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, the so-called ‘split’ personality. Fortunately, most people do not go that far. Protection from such a journey is now afforded by a multiplicity of individual styles created by postmodernity, so people can, literally, live in their fantasies. ‘My Computer / My Music / My Documents / My Space’ etc are the logos of cyberspace, where Bill Gates and friends continue to direct us into infantilized worlds of super-competence and perfect beauty. The Sims and Second Life become you and yours.

No need for the complexities of reasoned argument and debate

For most of us this resort to childish patterns of thinking and doing is harmless. It is even a defence against some of the most awful things happening, like the melting of the icecaps and the murderous events in the Middle East. We can close our eyes and relocate our ears, for example at a rave with MDMA (Ecstasy) bouncing around our brains, and via this serotonin-induced magical thinking go into a whirligig of physical release, like daddy hurling us around the garden. Skiing, surfing and bungee-jumping are the essence of this ‘whee!’ philosophy, wherein we feel alive in a death-defying act. It’s hardly surprising therefore that modern politicians are having to connect up with this primitive thinking style, and so readily adopt infantilized attitudes, either by curling up into a foetal ball (as Tony Blair is reputed to do when no-one will agree with him) or refusing to read anything complicated, à la Ronald Reagan. In _The Simpsons_ movie the President – played of course by that android-impersonator, Arnold Schwarzenegger – says: ‘I was elected to lead, not to read’ when confronted with a position paper.

The British (or Canadian or Australian) Parliament is extraordinary in the way it infantilizes all those who join it. Not only does it have terms and holidays as at school, and arcane rules, like school playgrounds, but it encourages horseplay. The strange roars, groans and hoots that emerge from Prime Minister’s Questions (a weekly event nowadays broadcast on the radio and TV) are primitive in the extreme. The Prime Minister becomes a kind of Head of Games, or even the Milk Monitor, with extraordinary – magical even – powers of promotion and dismissal. Cabinet members are sacked on a whim, based on the principle that, if I don’t see them at the Cabinet table then they won’t bother me. We even have news given before it has happened (‘Mr Brown will say in a speech this afternoon that …’) so as to make some rejigged platitudes seem like an achievement. The ‘Dear Leader’ thinks something therefore it is, and continues his climb into delusional cloud-cuckoo-land.

Taken from a US or UK perspective, it is quite clear that most of the presidents and prime ministers of the past 20 years have gone doolally. Margaret Thatcher certainly, via ‘there is no such thing as society’, and Tony Blair probably, in terms of a childishly hesitant speaking style, a staring-eyed sense of his own destiny, and ‘having no reverse gear’ – indicating that, by definition, he cannot be wrong. The homespun inanities of Ronald Reagan, the distorted ‘vision thing’ of Bush Senior and the neocon delusions of Dubya Bush and his gang reflect a childlike good/bad primitivism in terms of how they see the world. Everyone seems to be looking up at them, metaphorically speaking, therefore they must be right, have special knowledge. No need for the complexities of reasoned argument and debate. Ideas are, literally, seen in visual terms, and more is spent on making things look right than clarifying your English prose.

Magical words

As Fenichel points out, ‘words can kill and resurrect. They can perform miracles and turn time back. By a mere viable statement, the compulsive neurotic unconsciously believes that he can coerce reality into pursuing the course he desires.’ The generation of words becomes a thing in itself, and if you produce a policy, or a guideline, or a statement of intent, then really that’s enough. Politicians come to live in a complex word-world of hidden meanings and hinted powers, disappearing, like the gods of _The Ring Cycle_, into a vacuous Valhalla of increasing impotence. Other sources of power emerge that are not democratic, notoriously the post-Marxist managerial classes, adumbrated with their defining passport of acceptability, the MBA. Acquired qualifications and vocation, a knowledge of history, realistic thinking and acceptance of uncertainty are all deadly sins within this new infantilized perception.

In its wonderful discourse on the nature of death, reality and the impossibility of knowing anything about an afterlife, the late lamented Ingmar Bergman’s film _The Seventh Seal_ can help us to clear away some of this primitive thinking. A highly moral piece of work, that laughs at the pretensions of actors, of religion, of stupid people, it points out the importance of thinking about how to establish the truth. The re-emergence of the medieval in our ways of understanding the world is frightening. Most people probably find it so but lack the clarity of leadership to move on from the addictive toys and joys of permanent childhood. There are hints, in Britain, that Gordon Brown may (just may) be aware of this. But getting people to grow up and understand the real nature of cause and effect (not the pseudo-science of random associations) and to re-engage with difficult debates will not be popular. Playing chess with Death, _à la_ Bergman’s smiling, ironic knight, is perhaps a starter – a daily game of engagement with the truth?

*Trevor Turner* is a mental health professional based in London.

I shop, therefore I am

There is something mad about the modern world. It’s as if there is a collective neurosis where the delights of personal convenience have, paradoxically, created intolerable sensitivities. Or maybe it’s that our collective unconscious (as outlined by Carl Jung) is in fact fragmenting. Jung believed that we share a sense of symbols, dreams and feelings that go back to primitive times and reflect memories of our ancestors’ experiences.

There seems to be a rising tide of mental illnesses, a rising demand for ‘lifestyle’ medications and even several new ‘conditions’. Common ‘shyness’ is now a ‘social phobia’; screwing around is ‘sexual-addiction syndrome’; and bad-tempered people now have ‘emotionally unstable personality disorders’.

So why not ‘malignant self-actualization’ syndrome’ (MSA) – defined as a disabling condition which elevates personal choice into the highest arbiter of everything? It’s not yet in the standard psychiatric disease classifications but maybe it should be.

The signs of MSA are all around us. Let’s take personal living arrangements. In Western countries there are now often less than two children per marriage. And more than half of households in the 1980s contained just one or two people. Most of our elderly, more than 80 per cent, now live alone or with a spouse, compared to 25 per cent a century ago. Some 60 per cent of households used to have children, now only 12 per cent do. Most old people are looked after by other people’s children. Your own flat, your own car, your own space and your own ‘personal’ computer are the sacred must-haves of today. Yet loneliness can make you sick. Increased illness and in particular ‘somatization’ – the tendency to turn worry and stress into a physical symptom – is associated with people living alone.

Likewise the future looks set for an increasingly privatized lifestyle. By 2021 it is expected that over 40 per cent of men and a third of women will be living on their own. During the last 30 years the number of divorces has trebled and the number of marriages halved while ‘cohabiting’ (living together without marriage) has doubled. Half the children of ‘cohabitees’ see their parents separate before their fifth birthday. Single-parent families are poorer, the kids find it harder to trust and relate… and so on. On the other hand, successful long-term partners have better health and more money; they feel more confident and they deal better with problems and insecurities.

Even so, the pursuit of loneliness seems to be winning out. We have a society obsessed by obsolescence and perfection, throwing away used goods faster than we can buy new ones. ‘Shopping therapy’ is a typical modern habit, invented by salespeople to latch on to MSA sufferers.

But what are the roots of this obsession with the self? Psychiatrists have long described a range of personality disorders characterized by the inability to think more than a few moments ahead and the dominance of uncontrolled impulse. (‘Psychopath’ was the old term, but deliberately harming other people isn’t the main problem now.)

Today a rising tide of narcissism is spreading like a toxic social algae. Narcissism derives from the Greek myth of the beautiful boy Narcissus who so liked his looks he spent all day staring at his reflection in a pond – until eventually he fell in and drowned. The modern dominance of the camera and the importance of image over language may be one of the culprits. Comic books, films, mobile phones that take pictures – all value the look of things much more than the meaning of things. This obsession with appearance has created two enormous and increasingly profitable industries – cosmetics and food. A recent advertisement announced proudly that 1,200 researchers were striving night and day to get new products on to the shelves. At the same time fast-food franchises and instant meals are generating rising levels of obesity and further profits in the diet industry. And cosmetic surgery, for the not-quite-right nose or the flabby gut, drains medical resources from the needy to the greedy.

Today a rising tide of narcissism is spreading like a toxic social algae

In fact, MSA is a bottomless pit of potential demand on the healthcare system. Conditions like ‘air rage’, ‘road rage’ and dysmorphophobia (the conviction that you don’t quite look right) all reflect the triumph of individual desire over a commitment to the world outside oneself. Drug marketing has played its part in this; large pharmaceutical companies are happy to provide treatments for every little discomfort or inconvenience.

Bad behaviour

The latest new ‘disorder’ is ‘female sexual dysfunction’ and apparently 43 per cent of women in America are suffering from it! That’s a big market, just like the one for erection-enhancers and hormonal supplements that uses the ‘male menopause’ as its catch-phrase. We’ve already seen the brilliant campaigns for Prozac and friends – antidepressants that deal with even the mildest of depressions as well as obsessions and anxiety, shyness, bad temper... and whatever.

And where does all this narcissism-cum-MSA come from? Is it the way we are brought up – as psychoanalysts would have us believe? Or is it all in our genes? Both versions, nurture or nature, unfortunately lead all too easily to excuse-making. Psychoanalysis demands that you talk about yourself – usually at your own expense – for up to an hour, four or five times a week, for years. Genetics provides a ready excuse for saying: ‘it’s not my fault’ and demanding to be let off from the consequences of bad behaviour. The next step will be someone suing their parents for not taking proper genetic advice. The answer is probably much simpler, as Sir Michael Russell has pointed out in his book, Developing Minds. Studying how people grow up, Russell found that there are regular opportunities for change, especially if you have a sense of the future. A woman with a difficult childhood talked about her husband of 20 years as someone who ‘made me think about tomorrow’. We’ve all been dealt a mixed hand of parents and genes, some better than others, but no-one has to go on just looking at themselves in the mirror.

Perhaps the most important ingredient fuelling MSA is our addictive society. If we take drug and alcohol addicts as the ultimate example of those serving their own needs to the detriment of others – ranting, robbing or ruining so as to ease their personal pain – we can also see how subtler addictions are fiercely reinforced by our highly controlled society. George Orwell’s paranoid world of 1984 – published in 1948 – was bad enough, but we have gone way beyond that. Who are we fighting this year? Mr Bush and Mr Blair will tell us. What’s the right beer to drink? Bud have a great ad and that Mexican stuff with a lemon in the top still looks cool. We are so hooked on a thousand creature comforts, in the West at least, that we do not see the dependency downsides of coffee (anxiety), sugar (obesity), cars (heart disease) or additives (tantrums).

The demand for cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, pain relievers, tranquillizers, therapy, sleep control, sex-like-in-the-movies and one perfect baby has already distorted health services worldwide. They simply can’t keep up. And the more choices you have, the easier it is to be dissatisfied. So medical litigation is rising. The private health-insurance system in Australia temporarily crashed last year, having gone broke – and in some parts of the US it’s hard to find a doctor to deliver your baby because of the costs of malpractice insurance. People walk into hospital emergency departments in London at two in the morning complaining of back pain that’s been niggling for months. Why then? ‘Because I couldn’t sleep,’ they say. ‘And the baby was crying! Oh, by the way, can you do anything for a crying baby?’ But on-and-off back pain and crying babies are not illnesses: they are part of the business of being human. This medicalization of discomfort has been well explored in the writings of Ivan Illich. But we need to rediscover how to educate ourselves into accepting, embracing even, inconvenience.

Living alone

How do we get out of this? The only reasonably effective treatment for addiction is a group approach – for example Alcoholics Anonymous – and there may be some mileage in getting youngsters to talk to stable married couples about how to make relationships work. But if we aren’t all going to be living alone by the year 2050 then something big needs to be done soon. Perhaps if we could interest a drug company we could have a cure for MSA, or a vaccination against egotism? Perhaps the fault is with our education system. It’s supposed to teach people to think for themselves – though it rarely does. Maybe, in addition, we need to teach them to think about themselves.

Personally I blame too much counselling and chat shows. The urge to talk over every minor upset or half-baked relationship has become a modern shibboleth. It may be unfashionable to say so but the age of private therapy hasn’t exactly been a success – two world wars, weapons of mass destruction and global pollution. Let’s get back to working and playing with other people rather than talking about ourselves. What about compulsory team sports? What about tax breaks for not living alone, for not owning a car, for not having cosmetic surgery? What about abolishing TV? What about conversation over meals? What about ‘others before self’ as my mother used to say?

Trevor Turner is a psychiatrist and an occasional contributor to the NI