Can you see the future? Only with magical thinking

Blue crystal ball with magic book lying on table covered with blue cloth

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Can you predict the future? Or is this magical thinking? Anyway, how would that actually work?

As humans, we make lots of mistakes in the way we think. Often these are short-cuts taken by the brain to save time. But sometimes people see connections where there are none. And that can lead to magical thinking.

1 Misleading dreams

Firstly, let’s see how misleading dreams can lead people stray.

People make false connections between two events that happen close in time. Without realising, they may assume the first caused the second. However, often there’s no link at all.

For example, some people believe that their dreams predict terrible events. That can make them think they’re to blame if these bad things actually happen.

In their minds, their dream was a warning. So somehow, they should have stopped these things happening.

But are these beliefs reasonable?

Can dreams predict reality?

In a single year, you probably have thousands of dreams. Most of the time you forget them immediately. The events in them are confusing, or don’t reflect what happens in real life.

So you ignore them.

But very occasionally, a dream does resemble real life. For instance, one night you dream you win something. Then at work the next day, you get the winning ticket in a sweepstake among 20 people.

Making faulty conclusions

Now most people would think this was sheer chance. After all, they’ve had plenty of dreams that never came true. Therefore, they’d dismiss the idea that the two events are linked.

But you’re not so sure.

You suspect your dream predicted you’d win. As a result, you start to believe that your dreams can change destiny.

And that’s where you may stray into magical thinking.

Where’s the evidence?

Over your lifetime you’ve had thousands and thousands of dreams. And 99.99% or even 99.999% didn’t bear any similarity to later events.

Unfortunately, you’ve forgotten all those. You only remember the 1 in 10,000, or 1 in 100,000, that seems to support your theory that dreams can predict reality.

The trouble is, you’re only looking for evidence that supports your theory. In addition, you’re ignoring any evidence that doesn’t support your theory. And that’s a short-cut that the brain takes – being selective in the facts that it considers.

However, now you’re missing out the full story. You’re not looking at both sides of the question.

Your thinking error has now led you to make a causal connection between two events. But that connection doesn’t exist in reality. Dreams you have during your sleep don’t predict the future, or make things happen.

How would such a connection work?

Even if dreams could predict later reality, how would this work? By what mechanism could events in your dream ensure something happened in real life?

Regarding the lottery, you already had a 1 in 20 chance of winning in any case. And the organiser picked someone at random to take the winning ticket out of the container. 

So how could the activity of your brain cells during your dream make that person physically pick out the right ticket? How could a particular piece of paper “make” itself be picked up, instead of one of 19 other tickets?

It can’t. There’s no known mechanism in the world that would make that happen. It would defy the laws of physics.

Therefore it’s magical thinking.

The problem is that you’re not questioning your belief. You’re so sure it’s true, you don’t look for information that could show it to be wrong.

So you stay convinced your dreams can predict reality.

But your beliefs can trick you.

2 Dangerous thoughts?

Now let’s make this seemingly harmless example more serious.

Imagine after a minor argument with your husband, you momentarily wish him dead. But you don’t take any active steps to bring about his death, and in fact, make up with him soon after.

You’re 100% sure now that your husband is happy with your relationship.  

Now imagine that the next day, he’s killed in a car accident while driving alone.

You’re immediately overcome with guilt and self-blame. It seems obvious to you that your previous thought of wishing him dead caused his death. And so you descend into a spiral of guilt and depression.

In your grief, you can’t sort out the reality of the situation. Therefore you continue to blame yourself.

What’s the reality?

In reality, how could your thoughts have caused the accident? How could random firings in your brain cells affect your husband’s driving?

And think of all the other factors that could have had some bearing on what happened:

his level of attention

his reaction time

his knowledge of road rules

the roadworthiness of his car

weather conditions

the behaviour of other road users.

By saying you’re to blame, you’re saying your thoughts could affect those things.

But is that rational? 

Beware of magical thinking

If you do believe your thoughts had some influence on your husband’s death, how would that work in reality? How could you explain the mechanism scientifically?

You can’t. In fact, any explanation relies on superstition, or magical thinking.

There’s no known way that only thinking about an external event, without taking any action, can make it happen.

There’s no way in which you affected any of the above factors. Your thoughts had no bearing on what happened. You are not to blame for your husband’s accident.

The real explanation

So the real explanation?

You later find out that a car swerved in front of your husband. The other driver had lost control of his car when speeding. The road was slippery, with poor visibility due to heavy rain. Your husband had no room to avoid the collision.

So sad as it is, no further explanation is needed. Your thoughts did not cause your husband’s accident. Your thoughts, and what happened, were not connected in any way.

You bear no blame for what happened.

Confusing thoughts with events

Your self-blame is the result of a mistake the brain may make. Sometimes it confuses thoughts about an event, with the event itself.

It’s as if it sends you messages saying that if you can imagine something, it’s bound to happen. The brain confuses the thought with the actual event, and sees the two as virtually the same. And that’s even if the event didn’t happen in reality. 

Let’s say I’m a terrible worrier.

I’m preoccupied by a large number of fears, and worry that a lot of bad things may happen. But then I take one more step in my thinking.

I start to believe these things are virtually guaranteed to happen.

Magical thinking feeds avoidance

If I imagine being attacked in the street, I believe it’s really going to happen. So I stop going out.

If I imagine a plane crashing every time I think of flying, I’ll never go flying. I’m firmly convinced I’ll be killed.

Unfortunately, the more I worry, the more bad things I believe will happen. So I cut out one activity after another to keep myself or my loved ones safe.

However, eventually my world shrinks to the point that I barely can get out of the house. And yet I still keep worrying that these bad things will happen, even though I’m avoiding them.

By never going out and facing my fears, I never find out that they’re highly unlikely to happen. I never discover I’ve vastly overestimated the risk of these bad things happening.

Magical thinking has blighted my life.

And all because I’ve confused thinking about something, with it actually happening.

Self-blame caused by magical thinking

We mentioned earlier that some people blame themselves if bad things happen. They believe if they can imagine something bad happening, then they must stop it. If they don’t, they believe that they’re to blame if the bad thing happens.

This can be an especially strong belief if they think that others could be badly affected. The person now starts to believe they have to keep everyone safe.

So they stay on constant alert, looking out for dangers. And the more they scan their environment, the more their level of fear and worry increases.

But somehow, they discover something that lowers their fears for a few moments.

It may be washing their hands, or arranging things neatly in their cupboards. It could be counting all the odd numbers up to 200, or walking in and out of rooms in a certain way.

Whatever it is, this action lowers their level of anxiety for a short time. So every time they worry about those bad things happening, they repeat this action to make themselves feel better for a while. 

The next step

But then they take another step in their thinking.

They start to believe these actions will actually stop the bad things happening. So they feel even more obliged to continue these actions or rituals.

Over time, these rituals can take up a huge amount of time every day. But without them, the person feels they’ll be responsible for terrible things happening.

And that’s how someone vulnerable to this confusion of thought and action can start on an obsessive path. They’ve confused thinking that something could happen, with that thing actually happening in real life.

Why aren’t we all obsessional?

The question then arises – why aren’t we all obsessional?

Most people can flick away a random thought of something bad happening. For example, when you’re walking down the street, you may have a momentary vision of a building collapsing. Our brains send us these sorts of messages every now and again.

But they don’t mean anything.

So non-worriers don’t attach any particular importance to these thoughts or images. They think, “That’s a bit weird,” shrug their shoulders, and keep walking. They don’t get anxious, or take any particular steps to prevent the events happening. In fact, they forget all about them as they go about their day.

Most people also have little bits of magical thinking that they know don’t really work. Like knocking on wood, or avoiding the number 13. It’s all a bit of fun.

Challenge magical thinking

But for very anxious people, the belief in magical thinking can sometimes get a bit out of hand.

If that’s happening to you, see if you can challenge your thoughts.

Look for evidence that both supports and disproves your beliefs. Be careful about leaping to conclusions that you can’t find any evidence for.

If you are very superstitious, or even a bit obsessional, it may be affecting the quality of your decisions. In that case, talk to your GP or a psychologist. Find out more about unhelpful thinking styles, and learn to challenge magical thinking.

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