May the 4th be with you: The Force of Magical Thinking


By Alex Berardino

In light of ‘May the 4th be with you week’ here at Scizzle, and the recent announcement from J.J. Abrams of the cast for the newest Star Wars film, I’ve been thinking a lot about the original Star Wars trilogy. As a kid, I used to watch a marathon of all three of the original films every time we went on vacation, so they are pretty much burned into my subconscious. In fact, I’m fairly certain that many of my desires as a young man were motivated from things that I saw in those movies. I wanted to own an ewok (I settled for a Pug), I wanted a phaser (I settled for a pretty nifty home laser tag set), and I wanted to be able to control things with my mind just like Obi Wan Kenobi. The last one, telekinesis, I still haven’t settled on.


I’m not the only person who has ever hoped that they could control the physical world with their thoughts, or attributed things that have happened in the world around them to the influence of their thoughts. Psychologists have a phrase for this imagined telekinesis, magical thinking. Another name for it is the illusion of control. Either way, we, as a species, are particularly susceptible to attributing causation between two events when one of those events directly precedes the other, even when one of those events is strictly within our mind. There are many reasons for this. The most important is that it behooves us to find causal relationships in the world around us. Identifying these kind of relationships allows us to do the most central thing that our brains do, make predictions. If event B always follows event A, I can make an easy prediction that when event A happens, event B will follow, and I can plan accordingly. As such, we have a lot of machinery in our brains for identifying these relationships.


At the simplest level, this reduces to finding relationships between our actions and basic rewards. The basal ganglia, a set of structures that sit deep within the center of our brains, are constantly trying to predict the reward you will receive from an action or from something in your environment. They also calculate the error between their own prediction and the actual reward you get in order to make better predictions in the future. The way these systems work allows them to settle on predictions that match the probability that reward B actually follows action A, meaning that some reward that follows 100% of the time will actually have a larger reward prediction in your brain that one that follows only 70% of the time. At much higher levels, different areas within your cortex, the folded sheet of neurons that you see when you see a picture of the brain, and the hippocampus, an internal structure shaped a lot like a sea horse, are processing much more complicated relationships between things in your environment, and even between your thoughts and your environment. The cortex nests these relationships into a model that incorporates many of the past relationships that it has identified.   This model then helps you to make a prediction when you see something happen.


All this is to say that a large portion of your brain is constantly looking for these causal relationships and constantly making predictions based on the model it has built. In fact, research from the Tenenbaum lab  at MIT has shown that in many areas of life, people’s predictions about causal relationships in the world, for example intuition about the way that a tower of blocks will land when they are toppled on a table, are very accurate and fit a model of what is called Bayesian prediction. Without going into any detail at all, this essentially means that people incorporate prior information about how physics works, intuitively, and when they see the blocks begin to fall, they make accurate predictions of the probabilities of where the blocks will land by taking into account both what they see, and their prior knowledge. Most of the time, this machinery works very well, and allows us to build up fairly incredible working models of what we call ‘reality’.


Sometimes, however, we get trapped into finding relationships that aren’t there. In an elegant study, Daniel Wegner of Harvard University had subjects watch a basketball player take a series of free throws. He instructed them to visualize the player making his shots, and when they had, they felt that they had contributed to the player’s success, but ultimately not their failures. He explains the findings as such “In everyday experience, intention (such as wanting to turn on a light) is followed by action (such as flicking a light switch) in a reliable way, but the underlying neural mechanisms are outside awareness. Hence, though subjects may feel that they directly introspect their own free will, the experience of control is actually inferred from relations between the thought and the action.” Essentially, we don’t actually know what our neurons are doing when we intend to move, or when we move, or the relationship between them. The machinery of our brain simply has learned a reliable relationship between the feeling of intention, and the observation of action in the world. This can make us susceptible to magical thinking.


The second point of this study, that people didn’t think that they contributed to the times when the player was not successful, helps explain the second most important reason for magical thinking, cognitive bias. We simply remember the events where an outcome in the world was correlated with something we thought, and don’t remember all of the times when it wasn’t, which far outnumber the times when it was. This causes us to overweight the probability of the relationship between our thoughts and the actions of the world around us, and this corrupts our model of prior knowledge.


Despite our inherent limitations as human beings, we are on the edge of a form of telekinesis with the aid of technology. Each of our neurons communicates with other neurons by putting out a very tiny electrical spike. We have billions of neurons in each of our brains, and the collective spiking of these neurons adds up to a much larger (but less informative) electrical wave that we can measure outside of the skull using EEG (ElectroEncephaloGram). When you think about different things, different patterns of electrical activity are formed in your brain, and the EEG can tell the difference between many of these patterns. So, in essence, after sufficient training, an EEG coupled with a computer can learn to recognize specific thoughts from outside your skull. There are many groups working to incorporate this technology into real physical devices like wheelchairs, semi-autonomous cars, one group has even figured out a way to utilize them in a system that allows a man with MS to draw using small eye motions. All of these technologies would be enormously helpful to people who, through tragic events, are left with perfectly functioning brains but lack the ability to move their limbs. None of them rely on magic or the force, just a simple understanding of the way that our brains work. Perhaps I won’t have to settle after all.