The Gold Exchange

Musings about psychiatry and philosophy

Habs Madness

The line between sport superstition and delusion is thin.

Hey Joel,

Now, you know me: I've never been all that much of a sports fan (except maybe for Australian cricket), but last night I officially became a True Believer. When the Habs defeated the Bruins, I jumped up and down like an eight-year-old. It's taken more than 50 years, but I'm finally an honest-to-God Montrealer.

But here's the interesting thing. As I was watching the game, and getting progressively more and more anxious, I noticed that I was thinking and doing all of the things that I always found so bizarre in serious fans. (I'm talking about YOU, mister). I was afraid to changes seats for fear of changing the Canadiens' luck; fighting the feeling that the universe is always against me so my team won't win; shouting advice at the screen as if P.K. Subban could hear me (and would benefit from my coaching). And more than anything, feeling how dreadful the world would be if we lost.

Every few minutes I reminded myself that it was just a game -- no death or dismemberment was going to come from a loss, and we'd have another chance next year. But the anxiety was like a bank vault in the face of the rational thought. It occurred to me -- after the game of course -- that this kind of "magical thinking" is a lot like a delusion. Do you remember that delusional patient of Halligan and Marshall's -- "Jim" -- the man who thought that he could predict the future? And when his doctor asked Jim what he would have said if the doctor had told him that he (the doctor) could predict the future he said he would think it was a load of nonsense? The rationality of the person with a delusion is still often intact; it's just that the rationality can't get through the door of the vault that houses the delusional thinking.

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It seems to me that most psychiatrists think that symptoms of mental illness are just more extreme versions of ordinary states: depression is just a form of sadness that won't go away; panic is just anxiety out of control; and delusions are just abnormally persistent forms of the bizarre thoughts that all of us have sometimes. I've always been a bit skeptical about that idea, but my hockey delusions challenged my views. If the passions evoked by your hockey team can resist rationality, then we are all in delusion-like states more often than we think.

Ian

************ 

Hey Bro-

I couldn't really follow much of what you just wrote as my pulse hasn't dropped below 130 since they dropped the puck last night, and I'm still sore from standing on my left foot with my right arm extended at a 95 degree angle from the floor, since the series started two weeks ago. I really was the sixth man on the ice last night and probably deserved the third star of the game, but I'll let it slide.

Yes, you may be my older brother by a few years (you look great, by the way), but as you acknowledge, you’re a rank amateur when it comes to Habs Magical Thinking (they tried to get HMT into DSM5, but I wouldn’t let them. It’s not an illness. It’s simply a power that I alone happen to have).

I think the players are less superstitious than the fans because they have a measure of control over the game’s result – some more than others – while we sit helplessly by as the puck slithers by the goal line or rings off the post.

As you have experienced, it can be unpleasant watching playoff hockey with me, pacing between periods, let alone overtime. Yes, I have a closet filled solely with Habs T-shirts and hats, all to be deployed in different situations, in different combinations and even in different fashions. I believe the sideways-worn, fitted, blue hat was particularly useful during the penalty kill last night. I wonder if yesterday, game day, any of my patients noticed that I was wearing a blue shirt, blue pants with white pin-stripes, red socks, blue shoes, and something approximating a blue “belt” because black is a Bruins color and brown is too close to yellow, their other color (Bruins fans call it gold, but I don’t buy it). If they didn’t notice it then, they know it now.

Distinguishing superstition from delusion is tricky. Sports have a particularly strong affinity for magical thinking. People who scoff at others stepping over cracks have no trouble wearing the same pair of smelly socks until their team loses. I think it has to do with the religious fervor true fans feel. Team affiliation - affiliation with its players, its fans, its history (24 cups, baby!) - is also more likely, I think, to induce magical thought than the solitary athlete. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe people live and die with Roger Federer or Tiger Woods the way they do with Manchester United. Being a fan of a team is being part of a tribe. And with tribes come tribal ritual and tribal thought. Tribes are cultures. And, as we know, culturally accepted thoughts are not delusions.

When I’m watching the Habs (live or DVR’ed I’ve discovered) I may appear “crazy.” And I have thoughts that could be narrowly construed as delusional. Yet nobody, psychiatrist or otherwise, would diagnose me as such, in large part because many other people also believe they have this power. Religion, culture, sports. If enough of us believe it, we’re not delusional.

And if thinking you can control a six once disc of vulcanized rubber with your thoughts isn’t delusional, what is?

Now where are those socks? Just 43 hours ‘til puck drop.

Joel

 

Joel Gold, M.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor at the NYU School of Medicine. His brother, Ian Gold, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at McGill University.

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