Magical Thinking

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


I spent the past few days reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s new book, The Other Wind. This is the fifth installment of a series concerning a place she calls “Earthsea,” an archipelago inhabited by farmers, sailors, tradesmen, wizards and dragons. I’m pretty sure this land doesn’t actually exist, but I wish it did.

Like a lot of people, including many therapists, I like what is called “magical thinking (MT).” This term has no strict definition but it typically operates according to a few basic principles, among them belief in forces aside from the four known to exist, mystical power existing in all things to various degrees, symbols and some kind of cosmic connection between things that appear similar (think homeopathy). There’s more of course, but these are enough to keep me busy. I’m sure that my appreciation for Star Trek comes from the same source in my head and I know I was born this way because I can’t recall either of my parents or any teacher ever encouraging me to worry about other worlds or lose myself in the technical aspects of time travel. But this is fun for me, and I’m not entirely certain that it doesn’t help me be a better therapist, though why that is can be a little complicated.

When you like MT in the way that I do you recognize it easily. The principles of magical thought stand out like some kind of beacon as you examine the reasoning that leads to any conclusion in the clinic either about what’s wrong or what we should do about it. For instance, when I hear of a kind of care that depends upon the “flow of energy” through the body that is somehow dependent upon anatomy unknown to medical science (sound like acupuncture or myofascial release?) I know two things immediately: 1. It would be a really cool way of treating people, and 2. This therapy has a big problem because certain aspects of its theory don’t actually exist.

Still, MT surrounds many aspects of the creative arts and lends them a transcendent quality that defies simple description. Sometimes the language of science, ironically enough, is inadequate or too imprecise to convey some part of disability or recovery that might be well described in terms more properly called poetic. These images tread the line between reality and fantasy, and while some therapists are perfectly willing to believe in things just because they like them, my careful reading of fantasies like Le Guin’s helps me recognize when the line’s been crossed. In my opinion, the man who does this kind of medical writing better than anyone is the neurologist Oliver Sacks. Take a look and you’ll see that his depth of understanding depends to a large degree on his appreciation for symbolism, mystery and poetics. He manages to do this without ever abandoning scientific principles and he obviously doesn’t practice any kind of medicine that depends on MT. That’s for Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil.

Le Guin’s stories contain characters and situations to which I can immediately relate and of course I enjoy “going” to Earthsea when I have the time. There the right word said by the right person at a precise moment can save lives, alter the course of history and fulfill the deepest desire of an entire race. My clinic in the real world doesn’t work like that. Here science sets boundaries and makes accurate, perhaps undesired predictions. A little magic would be nice, but I have to remember where in my life it truly belongs.