"Hidden Idiot"


Back in the early 60s, when a computer took up a big room, a family friend of ours was working on a subset of Artificial Intelligence called Machine Translation, between English and Russian. (Quelle surprise!) With formal speech, it did well enough; but it “choked” on idioms, such as “Out of sight, out of mind” [which it rendered “hidden idiot”]. Even as a kid, I took exception to the linguistic inference that being out of one’s mind was the same as being an idiot. [Surely, that would be “out of brain”?]

Let’s consider the aphorism, itself: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Piaget and his followers did clever experiments to demonstrate at what age a child develops Object Constancy–the belief in Things Unseen [such as a high value treat, first out there in plain sight, then covered up by a cup]. Until this cognitive stage is reached, life is one big magic show, where objects randomly appear and disappear. [For some of us, the magic show is still in town, featuring tricks with our keys.] [If you are Irish, you realize that the Fairies have taken your keys; and that They will return them, in Their own good time.] A game which is thought to hasten the development of Object Constancy involves a Kindly Grownup pretending to vanish behind a handkerchief, and then suddenly reappearing, with the incantation “Peek-a-Boo!” Playing the game too soon in a baby’s cognitive life is likely to provoke tears of fear–sometimes at the “disappearance,” sometimes at the “reappearance.” It becomes clear that the kid “gets it,” when he puts on his own magic show, by “hiding his eyes” with his hands and saying the magic words. What is less clear is whether he thinks he has made you, or himself, vanish. The first is just dumb [but we do it all the time–it’s called denial]. The second is just crazy [except when Irish grownups do it–and it’s called magical thinking].

Magical thinking, of course, is an accepted part of many other cultures. Think voodoo, think bending spoons with your mind, think predicting [or causing] the next card to be dealt at BlackJack. It’s not an Altogether Bad Thing. It often gives us the courage to attempt risky [but necessary] endeavors, such as to fly jets [where it’s called “The Right Stuff”] or to run into burning buildings [where it’s called Fire Fighting]. It also, alas, gives teenagers and young adults carte blanche to engage in all manner of hare-brained and hair-raising activities, because of a belief in their immortality. “The laws of physics, logic, and probability do not apply to me.”

Pseudocyesis [false pregnancy] is often attributed to magical thinking [even though it occurs frequently in dogs, cats, horses, and goats]; whereas its opposite–pregnancy denial–is, so far, documented only in humans. In either case, the body mimics most of the signs and symptoms of the desired condition–whether that is to be with, or without, child. A bizarre case of the latter is in the news this week, in which a “caring mother” of two teenage boys has now confessed to the killing at birth of 3 subsequent babies [two of whose corpses she stored in the family’s deep freeze], allegedly without her husband’s knowledge of any of it. How could he be unaware of her pregnancies? She “didn’t show.” I can just about buy that. There is medical precedent. How could she maintain the persona of a “normal” wife and mother for 4 years, knowing that she had stashed the incriminating evidence right in their house? My guess is that she used a combination of denial and magical thinking. There is no jury, but the judge’s verdict is still “out,” as to how culpable this woman is. Astonishingly to me, her husband has already been exonerated. Infuriatingly to me, he admonished the judge, “You should not try to understand us.”

The fact is, we all use denial [Do you fly? Do you drive a car? Do you drink water?]; and most of us use magical thinking. [If I promise to donate $20 to the SPCA, Napster will come home.] At the brain level, I believe that both defenses are useful in calming amygdalar alarm [but at the cost of reality testing]. Sometimes, that cost is very high.

Incidentally, the “hidden idiot” in the picture is not Lili. It is myself, hiding behind the tree on her right. [See my sleeve?] As readers of the post “Crazy Like a Fox” will know, I was anything but “out of [Lili’s] mind,” as she launched herself up the hill to find me. Unlike the woman in the news story, Lili has a highly developed sense of Object Constancy, and knew I was just playing “Peek-a-Boo” with her.

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Filed under magical thinking, object relations theory

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