Magical thinking is the attribution of causal connections to events which rational observation shows to be unconnected. For instance, suppose someone is gambling in a casino and a passerby pauses to tie her shoelaces just as they get a big win. That gambler might then want the passerby to stay and tie her shoelaces every time he places a bet. Similarly, if someone prays and something positive and on-topic later occurs, it would be easy to conclude that prayer is powerful. This is of course not how prayer works, but that's not what this is about.
We all have our taboos, and there are cultural taboos. Suzette Haden Elgin, author of Mother Tongue and inventor of the women's language Laadan, once imagined a culture where presenting items in blue containers was so abhorrent that it would be like - sorry about this - us being given birthday presents in parcels smeared in excrement. She then imagined that same culture retaliating by scuppering negotiations with us by insisting on sending female delegates, which we found unacceptable. The point being, of course, to illustrate that the taboos of the patriarchy are as illogical as not wanting things in blue boxes. I should point out that the future human culture she imagines is of course highly sexist.
However, I did have to stick a note of apology in there before I even mentioned one of our own taboos, and you can imagine that a language spoken by a culture with that taboo would tend either to avoid using any words for "blue" or perhaps use a euphemism such as "sky-coloured" (this culture is of course not based in Britain or that would be a synonym for grey rather than blue). This kind of thing has happened in Italic languages. Latin avoided using the word mensis for Cynthia because of its association with menstruation and instead referred to her as Luna, a contraction of lumina - "the light", and that taboo has led to similar words being used today in, for instance, French. English has no such history and still has the word "Moon", although of course it does tend to refer to those taboo subjects using Greek or Latin rather than English words, something which incidentally sounds very strange to German ears. Likewise, Castilian Spanish refuses to use the word *siniestre, the expected word for "left", and instead uses izquierda, from the Basque ezker.
There are reasons for all of these things, and they have various connections to what we tend to agree is realistic. For instance, it seems to make sense to have a taboo about excrement because of the risk of infection, and in fact this could explain the taboo about the hand used for wiping rather than eating (again, apologies for the association). The latter taboo is of course historically exaggerated and now anachronistic. That said, we do seem to have various things going on for us which stop us from risking our health, particularly from infections. Among other things, aversion from skin lesions springs to mind, as well as the abhorrence we tend to have of unidentified brown matter as opposed to blue. There is a whole load of stuff in the Bible, for example, about the diagnosis and quarantining of lepers, many of whom probably would have turned out not to have leprosy at all. As a Christian, I feel obliged to bore you rigid by posting a slab of text from Leviticus:
Leviticus 13 King James Version (KJV)Lots of instructions, and clearly they have come from somewhere and my first impression is that they'd work quite well. I imagine they ended up in the oral tradition preceding the Bible because the groups of people who didn't have them tended to come down with leprosy and were therefore more likely to be slaughtered by their enemies or not have so many offspring which survived childhood, so we get this handed down to us. Nonetheless, I imagine a lot of people with psoriasis, impetigo or eczema ended up in leper colonies as a result and perhaps after a while they really did end up with leprosy, although apparently it's not very infectious.
13 And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, saying,
2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests:
3 And the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh: and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
4 If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days:
5 And the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague in his sight be at a stay, and the plague spread not in the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven days more:
6 And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague be somewhat dark, and the plague spread not in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is but a scab: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean.
7 But if the scab spread much abroad in the skin, after that he hath been seen of the priest for his cleansing, he shall be seen of the priest again.
8 And if the priest see that, behold, the scab spreadeth in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a leprosy.
9 When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest;
10 And the priest shall see him: and, behold, if the rising be white in the skin, and it have turned the hair white, and there be quick raw flesh in the rising;
11 It is an old leprosy in the skin of his flesh, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean, and shall not shut him up: for he is unclean.
12 And if a leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his foot, wheresoever the priest looketh;
13 Then the priest shall consider: and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean.
14 But when raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean.
15 And the priest shall see the raw flesh, and pronounce him to be unclean: for the raw flesh is unclean: it is a leprosy.
16 Or if the raw flesh turn again, and be changed unto white, he shall come unto the priest;
17 And the priest shall see him: and, behold, if the plague be turned into white; then the priest shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: he is clean.
18 The flesh also, in which, even in the skin thereof, was a boil, and is healed,
19 And in the place of the boil there be a white rising, or a bright spot, white, and somewhat reddish, and it be shewed to the priest;
20 And if, when the priest seeth it, behold, it be in sight lower than the skin, and the hair thereof be turned white; the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a plague of leprosy broken out of the boil.
21 But if the priest look on it, and, behold, there be no white hairs therein, and if it be not lower than the skin, but be somewhat dark; then the priest shall shut him up seven days:
22 And if it spread much abroad in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a plague.
23 But if the bright spot stay in his place, and spread not, it is a burning boil; and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
24 Or if there be any flesh, in the skin whereof there is a hot burning, and the quick flesh that burneth have a white bright spot, somewhat reddish, or white;
25 Then the priest shall look upon it: and, behold, if the hair in the bright spot be turned white, and it be in sight deeper than the skin; it is a leprosy broken out of the burning: wherefore the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy.
26 But if the priest look on it, and, behold, there be no white hair in the bright spot, and it be no lower than the other skin, but be somewhat dark; then the priest shall shut him up seven days:
27 And the priest shall look upon him the seventh day: and if it be spread much abroad in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is the plague of leprosy.
28 And if the bright spot stay in his place, and spread not in the skin, but it be somewhat dark; it is a rising of the burning, and the priest shall pronounce him clean: for it is an inflammation of the burning.
29 If a man or woman have a plague upon the head or the beard;
30 Then the priest shall see the plague: and, behold, if it be in sight deeper than the skin; and there be in it a yellow thin hair; then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a dry scall, even a leprosy upon the head or beard.
31 And if the priest look on the plague of the scall, and, behold, it be not in sight deeper than the skin, and that there is no black hair in it; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague of the scall seven days:
32 And in the seventh day the priest shall look on the plague: and, behold, if the scall spread not, and there be in it no yellow hair, and the scall be not in sight deeper than the skin;
33 He shall be shaven, but the scall shall he not shave; and the priest shall shut up him that hath the scall seven days more:
34 And in the seventh day the priest shall look on the scall: and, behold, if the scall be not spread in the skin, nor be in sight deeper than the skin; then the priest shall pronounce him clean: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean.
35 But if the scall spread much in the skin after his cleansing;
36 Then the priest shall look on him: and, behold, if the scall be spread in the skin, the priest shall not seek for yellow hair; he is unclean.
37 But if the scall be in his sight at a stay, and that there is black hair grown up therein; the scall is healed, he is clean: and the priest shall pronounce him clean.
38 If a man also or a woman have in the skin of their flesh bright spots, even white bright spots;
39 Then the priest shall look: and, behold, if the bright spots in the skin of their flesh be darkish white; it is a freckled spot that groweth in the skin; he is clean.
40 And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald; yet is he clean.
41 And he that hath his hair fallen off from the part of his head toward his face, he is forehead bald: yet is he clean.
42 And if there be in the bald head, or bald forehead, a white reddish sore; it is a leprosy sprung up in his bald head, or his bald forehead.
43 Then the priest shall look upon it: and, behold, if the rising of the sore be white reddish in his bald head, or in his bald forehead, as the leprosy appeareth in the skin of the flesh;
44 He is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head.
45 And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.
46 All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.
47 The garment also that the plague of leprosy is in, whether it be a woollen garment, or a linen garment;
48 Whether it be in the warp, or woof; of linen, or of woollen; whether in a skin, or in any thing made of skin;
49 And if the plague be greenish or reddish in the garment, or in the skin, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin; it is a plague of leprosy, and shall be shewed unto the priest:
50 And the priest shall look upon the plague, and shut up it that hath the plague seven days:
51 And he shall look on the plague on the seventh day: if the plague be spread in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in a skin, or in any work that is made of skin; the plague is a fretting leprosy; it is unclean.
52 He shall therefore burn that garment, whether warp or woof, in woollen or in linen, or any thing of skin, wherein the plague is: for it is a fretting leprosy; it shall be burnt in the fire.
53 And if the priest shall look, and, behold, the plague be not spread in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin;
54 Then the priest shall command that they wash the thing wherein the plague is, and he shall shut it up seven days more:
55 And the priest shall look on the plague, after that it is washed: and, behold, if the plague have not changed his colour, and the plague be not spread; it is unclean; thou shalt burn it in the fire; it is fret inward, whether it be bare within or without.
56 And if the priest look, and, behold, the plague be somewhat dark after the washing of it; then he shall rend it out of the garment, or out of the skin, or out of the warp, or out of the woof:
57 And if it appear still in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin; it is a spreading plague: thou shalt burn that wherein the plague is with fire.
58 And the garment, either warp, or woof, or whatsoever thing of skin it be, which thou shalt wash, if the plague be departed from them, then it shall be washed the second time, and shall be clean.
59 This is the law of the plague of leprosy in a garment of woollen or linen, either in the warp, or woof, or any thing of skins, to pronounce it clean, or to pronounce it unclean.
Sometimes these taboos turn up in a medical context. For instance, some people have germ phobias which are very disabling. There is also the "matchbox sign" - patients turning up with matchboxes full of significant "parasites" which they believe are infesting their skin but which look to the practitioner to be mere flakes of skin or bits of lint. This phenomenon was immortalised by Fox and Matt Groening thus:
(Copyright Fox, will be removed on request)
Unfortunately, whereas it may be amusing to some to point the finger and laugh in this way, there are two words in that sign which I want to emphasise:
Because there may, and particularly in days of yore there may have been.
Now the problem emerges of what a practitioner is supposed to do here, because clearly there are such things as parasites and pathogens, but it's very easy to slip into either seeing them everywhere or seeing them nowhere. There are some CAM people who attribute problems to parasites and infestations very often, and there are others who do so very seldom. I am in the camp that does so very seldom, not because I believe they're never there but because I believe the problem often precedes the infection or infestation. Infections and infestations often result from problems like stagnation of fluid or weak barriers. For instance, this is the position of the ethmoid bone:
...and this is the ethmoid bone itself:
(Sorry about the blur). The ethmoid bone has to be riddled with holes because the olfactory nerves responsible for smell pass through it into the nasal cavity. No holes, no sense of smell, bed catches on fire, you don't notice, you die. So it's quite important. However, that makes it quite fragile. If it breaks, meningitis is more or less inevitable because it forms a barrier between the otherwise relatively harmless bacteria living in the nose and the linings of the brain.
This kind of thing happens to a less dramatic degree all the time in various ways. Someone might eat a packet of crisps and damage the mucus membrane enough in their mouth to get an infection that way - probably quite a minor one of course. However, if the person is healthy, which includes behaving healthily, they will be more protected against these problems.
So these things:
...of which we are so enamoured, we have to be wary about in two opposite ways. On the one hand, we have to do sensible things like washing our hands after going to the toilet so we don't get the bottom ones, or avoiding walking through long grass so we don't get the top ones or, more importantly, their associated spirochaetes:
However, on the other hand we also have to be very careful not to see them everywhere. We need balance, and we need strong barriers and flow. Some of these barriers and flow are in or on our bodies, and some of them are in our minds.
We have magical thinking and taboos so we can protect ourselves, of course, and we also have rational thinking. We can err on either side with both, but magical thinking exists for a reason and has brought us through the stone age and bronze age over many millenia to the start of the period during which rational thinking has become dominant. Also, we may not always realise the reason for a taboo or particular way of thinking, and it's difficult to know when we're tinkering with something which should be left alone, and when we need to change something.