Thinking Differently

For a rational species, it is irrationality that often seems to "work." Why?

ThinkingIt was a very popular circus. One day, a new elephant got in. He had huge ears and the audience roared with excitement every time they saw him flapping his ears. What an embarrassment!

One day, when the elephant sat sulking over his ears, a friend came to him with a feather and said, “Here, hold this feather. It’s a magic feather. And, it’ll help you use your ears like wings. Has anybody seen a flying elephant? You’ll be the first!”

The elephant held the magic feather in his trunk and tried to flap his ears, once, twice, thrice and again and again. And, suddenly, there he was, up in the air, flying like a bird. The magic feather had done the trick!

That night the show was a huge hit. No one had ever seen an elephant that flew, holding a feather in his trunk. The elephant was soon a star. The world flocked to admire him.

The elephant kissed the magic feather. It had helped and changed his life. He was now confident, happy, and loved by all.

However, as luck would have it, or not have it, the feather once fell off the elephant’s trunk during a show. Oh, God! What a disaster! With the magic gone, the elephant was going to hit the ground. Desperation struck him. His friend soon called out: “Hey. let it go! It’s just a plain feather. Not magical at all. It worked for you because you believed in its magic. Go on. Nothing’s changed.You’re still the winner.” The elephant kept his chin and trunk up and continued courageously with his flight. The show was a huge success, again. Till date, he remains the only elephant in the world who flies!

Feathers we wear

All of us have held on to this feather, like the elephant, at some point of time in our lives. Sometimes, we wear the same clothes on important occasions because they work. At times, by signing with the same pen, by taking the same route which “worked” the last time, or because we saw a black car, or because things always happened to us three times, and this is the third we’ve been lucky. Or, because it is a particular day of the week, or because we have worn the lucky charm.

There are stories galore of actors taking the same name film after film, because the name works. Heads of State choose special days to enter office; cricketers have “game-day” clothes… Many have done that, and “knew” that they would make it through anything, and emerge winners. From W B Yeats to Bill Gates, all great minds, have believed in different possibilities at least once in their lives, things that hold a special meaning for them alone.

It is said that our humankind lives in the twilight of probability rather than the noontime sun of certainty. To experience probability, we tend to be irrational from time to time.

Contradictions galore

For a supposedly rational species, it might seem like a contradiction. But, this phenomenon is as old as anxiety itself. Our minds, when confronted with uncertainty of any kind, or with the realisation that we don’t know the outcome of a particular event that is important to us, decides to remove uncertainty. It asks us to think that if we believe in something strongly enough, our thoughts come true.

This irrational thinking is almost magical. Check what happens if we decide to wear that good luck charm, take that “lucky” pen to sign a contract, wear that “lucky” colour on D-day.

Our spirits are lifted, anxiety is reduced, confidence shoots up magically, and we know that things will work for us no matter what. This belief, which has its basis in imagination and is often irrational, wishful thinking, happens to be the conviction of our mind, thought, words, and action. This may, in some way or the other, cause or prevent outcomes according to one’s wishes.

It is an allure that also defies logic and rational laws of cause and effect. If signing with a lucky pen can bring success, nothing else other than a pen would be needed to succeed in life. If wearing lucky, “game-day” clothes were to win matches, all one needs is a lucky trouser! Or, if entering a new office or commuting to a new place of work by a particular route were to bring better days, we would only walk the “right,” successful path in life and refuse to step on any other road.

It is all a question of belief – of irrational beliefs generated in us, and why they seem to work from time to time!

Web in the Ring

An excellent piece in Skeptical Inquirer by James Alcock tells us, “Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, an engine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true, and what is not. This belief engine selects information from the environment, shapes it, combines it with information from memory, and produces beliefs that are generally consistent with beliefs already held. This system is as capable of generating fallacious beliefs as it is of generating beliefs that are in line with truth. These beliefs guide future actions and, whether correct or erroneous, they may prove functional for the individual who holds them.”

Inference: our faculty of critical thinking is developed only by experience and education. It is only as we grow older and become more aware would we realise that our magical or irrational thinking has limitations. Most often, logic works well for us. But, many times events determine which way we will respond. Strong emotions can interfere with the application of critical thought, and irrationality can succeed for a while with our full knowledge.

It always feels better to find a hook which one can rest one’s mind on. That little “hook” is conscious irrationality we often indulge in. We deliberately switch off critical thinking when things are not quite convenient for us.

Let’s look at what this temporary irrational belief “offers” us:

  • It builds our own support system, or coping skills
  • It helps us to be proactive instead of passively waiting for things to get better
  • It increases the feeling of competence and confidence
  • We talk ourselves out of stress and/or situation by reminding ourselves that things are sure going to work for us.

Critical thinking, logic, reason, and science, are ideal; but, there are times when one needs to believe in the magic feather like the flying elephant. Or.

Well, if the little feather helps us soar higher in life, like the elephant, holding it would not be a bad idea at all. Yet, letting go of the “lucky” idea, after a while, would be only better!

Gayatri Pagdi
Gayatri Pagdi is a Mumbai-based health journalist. Her areas of interest include emotional, mental and spiritual health.


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