Memories and Magic

I found this article a couple of weeks back and it struck me but I’ve wanted to ponder it for a bit before posting on it.

The gist of the story is that scientists think that superstitious, magical-thinking is behind people’s attachments to personal items belonging to people who have died (or, I would argue, haven’t necessarily died but are no longer part of our lives).  The implicit assumption seems to be that if there are two identical items, then our attachment to the one shouldn’t necessarily be any stronger or different than the attachment to the other.  To reinforce this, they nickname this preference magical contagion.   This is a very materialistic understanding of reality and humanity, and very dismissive of personal attachment to memories evoked from a particular item.  Scientists assume that if two things are identical, then any preference for one over the other based on who it belonged to must be magical.

The assumption is that this is somehow illogical and irrational behavior and therefore requires an explanation.  That explanation they call social connection.  The test they run for this is rather curious, I think.  They first make a group of people feel ostracized or unwelcome in a social setting and then test to see how heavily they prefer items personally related to someone they admire.  The assumption was that the need for social acceptance caused a higher level of attachment to objects personally associated with known people.  Hence, the need for social connection is at the root of magical contagion.  The article notes that social disconnection is not the cause of magical contagion, it just intensifies the belief or need for it.

Thus, the desire to have something that belonged to someone important in some way gets disregarded as essentially irrational.

I won’t venture to assume that everybody likes to keep things that belonged to important people in their lives.  But I’ve met very few people who, when visiting their homes or talking with them don’t have some sort of memento.  These aren’t necessarily lonely people, and they certainly don’t appear irrational.

It’s tempting to make the argument that what is lacking is a spiritual dimension – that somehow an object actually owned or worn or used by someone has some bit of their essence to it, and that this would be the unstated reason why people prefer that item over an identical item without the personal association.  But I’m uncomfortable with that as it leads us slightly down the path towards an almost animist view of creation, where spiritual essences and properties are attached to most everything and we begin to revere objects for this property.  I don’t think it’s my rationalist, materialist upbringing (as a part of Western culture in the 20th and 21st centuries) that wants to discard this.  I don’t think it’s Biblical either.  Nothing in Scripture leads me to conclude that there is a spiritual essence which we pass on to objects.

I think it’s just part of human nature, by and large.  Why do I want the item from that person that they actually owned, rather than an identical one?  Because they actually owned it.  Is that rational or logical?  I can’t see the argument why it is, but certainly not from a strict materialist perspective.  What makes it special is that they owned it or wore it or purchased it.  When we see that item, it reminds us of that person.  It isn’t magical, but it’s important.  Just because you can’t quantify the why of that importance in physical terms shouldn’t denigrate it with such a pejorative term!

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