It’s a Thin Line Between Magical Thinking and Mental Illness

The magic — and the danger — of looking for patterns in the world

LLast night, while searching “the significance of 38,” I landed on a Yahoo! Answers page. It was not the first time I’ve sought comfort in strangers’ answers to other strangers’ questions.

In fact, the most useful information I’ve obtained since the internet was usefully searchable has been from message boards, from people with questions professionals couldn’t answer or from people with questions for which there are no designated professionals. (This practice is so common now that, as I write this, there are 837 million search results for “My medical degree is from Google University.”)

The question I had last night fell somewhere between there-is-a-professional-for-this and there-is-not-a-professional-for-this. In fact, the very in-between nature of the question is relevant to the answer I eventually found on Yahoo.

When I typed “the significance of 38” into the search engine, I wasn’t looking for its numerology, although I may have felt different if those search results had been more relevant to my current dilemmas. I don’t really know what I was hoping to find, but had I fallen upon a message containing “38” written by John Titor — a self-proclaimed time traveler from the year 2036 — I might have gotten excited.

What I found instead were pages and pages of Angel Number websites, until I scrolled to a result titled “Why do I keep seeing the number 38 everywhere?”

This was basically my question, too, so I clicked on it.

AAlmost six months ago now, I had a dream that included a six-digit number. The next morning, I tapped out the details in the Notes app on my phone, which I’ve been doing for about two years.

I started this morning practice because I dream the future. Sometimes the dreams I have at night come true the next day, or three days later, or even after a week goes by. And while there is plenty of strong evidence indicating that this is actually a thing — scientists are studying the phenomenon — it’s been satisfying to track my dreams and then announce out loud with glee to anyone in the vicinity when one of them comes true.

I had already learned that when my dreams contain numbers, I should write them down. Typically, a one- or two-digit numeral shows up in the dream in slightly different form than in waking life — as a bill total, a bus route, or an address. To dream a six-digit number that would later appear in my waking life seemed impressive, and even proof that I was getting better at psychic dreaming.

I remember thinking, “Does it make me crazy that I believe this woman, or that I want to?”

In this particular dream, I had to write down a phone number, but the next morning I remembered only part of it:

It’s a 295 number, I noted. I think 295389 something.

Three days later, I had to drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment. The parking garage was uncharacteristically full, and valet parking was free. As I got out of the car and reached out to collect the ticket, I had a feeling. Lo and behold, the ticket read 389-292. I laughed and thanked the valet. I told my mother, who was underimpressed. You may be underimpressed, too. You might point out that only five of the six numbers are the same, or that the numbers are out of order. But if you experience or study precognitive dreams, you already know the number was close enough to count. You might have also noticed that in digital script, 2 is the mirror image of 5.

OnOn the Yahoo! Answers page, there are 10 answers to “Why do I keep seeing 38 everywhere?” The answer voted “Best,” written a decade ago, says, “It means something, but only you will know what it means, when the meaning reveals itself. Keep noticing.”

Something tells me Suzanne G. is now a numerologist or a life coach.

The second best answer kicks off like this:

“You could be starting to become manic or schizophrenic. That’s how it started with me.”

“Apophenia (/æpoʊˈfiːniə/) is the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.[1] The term (German: Apophänie) was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia.[2] He defined it as “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”.[3][4] He described the early stages of delusional thought as self-referential, over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions, as opposed to hallucinations.[1][5]

Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information, such as gambling.[4]” — Wikipedia

AA good friend has a relative who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic. This was after many months of the relative telling my friend about perceived signs that her family physician was in love with her. It began with his body language shifting toward her during appointments and a general sense of flirtiness when she was in the office.

But soon the kind of signs looked like classified ads in the local newspaper that were meant to secretly let her know he was thinking about her, or a parked car across the street at 3 a.m. blinking the lights a few times a week to wake her up and get her attention.

My friend is like me: She believes in magic. She would meet the relative for lunch and listen with attention and care. But my friend is also more skeptical than I am, so while she would nod her head in affirmation, she would also gently ask for additional proof that the classified ads were really meant for her relative. She would question aloud why the physician was being so subtle about his feelings.

My friend would report back to me every few weeks. I remember thinking, Does it make me crazy that I believe this woman, or that I want to?

A few months later, the relative had a mental break. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was put on medication and soon returned to her normal state of being. A year later I asked my friend how her relative was doing.

“Fine,” she said. “She seems like herself. But,” she continued, “I had lunch with her the other day, though, and she said to me, ‘I know I’m healthier now and I appreciate that I am, but the truth is, I really miss seeing the signs. Seeing them, following the clues, it all made my life feel meaningful, magical.’”

AAfter the incident with the valet parking ticket, I started seeing 389 and then 38 everywhere: on YouTube as subscriber numbers, as the calories burned on the elliptical machine, as the ticket number of the corsage I picked up for my son’s high school dance. I recorded these in my Notes app, as I do my dreams. Sometimes I would screenshot the image on the phone and circle the 38 or 389 and share it with a friend.

In April, I went to a writing conference in Oregon. My hotel room was 308. The bill for breakfast the next morning came to $38. Later that day, I went to a meeting with a tech industry professional. The street address was 308.

For dinner, a friend and I went to a burger joint to watch another friend read poetry. We told the poet about all the 308s and 38s and she said, with reasonable calm, that earlier in the day she and another writer were at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden. At the end of the tour, they went to the teahouse in the tower of cosmic reflections. At the end of the tea ceremony, she told us, they were invited to choose a stick that had a number on it (I can’t remember for what purpose). She chose 38.

It all felt very magical on the trip itself, but I wonder if it wasn’t all some kind of collaborative mania.

That night, the same friend and I went to another reading. A mutual friend was reading from her book. Before she was announced, the friend sat with us. I asked what section she was going to read, and she said she was planning on asking the audience to call out a page number. We laughed and told her all about the 38s. When she was called up to read, as promised she asked the audience for a page number. Can you guess what number was shouted first?

For the rest of the trip, my friend and I spotted 38 on license plates all over Oregon. At some point, we realized that 38 was also the year his mother was born, which is relevant because the other reason we were in Oregon was to visit a long-lost half brother he had learned about only recently. His mother, now passed, had given up this baby for adoption without telling anyone except the baby’s father.

It all felt very magical on the trip itself, but I wonder if it wasn’t all some kind of collaborative mania.

TTwo nights ago, before the full moon, I sat in front of my coffee table. On the table were a few crystals, a stick of palo santo, and the deck of spirit medicine cards I consult from time to time for guidance. The cards have consistently and uncannily offered insight into my life’s current dilemmas — much better than Google.

I asked the cards to offer me wisdom and comfort in advance of this full moon, which my favorite astrologer said was a Buddha full moon and therefore full of opportunities for clarity, truth, and enlightenment.

I drew a card from the deck and turned it over. The card was Frog, and the word associated with it was “cleansing.” It seemed appropriate, especially in light of the spring rain I got caught in just an hour earlier as I was exiting the grocery store, and in light of the divorce papers I am about to sign, and in light of the recent, final end to the relationship with the friend with whom I traveled to Oregon.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the number of the Frog card is 38.

FFor years now, when people have asked me what I’m working on these days — by which they mean new creative writing — I say, “I’m not doing much writing, just a lot of research via hardcore living. But I think what I will be writing about someday has to do with the fine line between magical thinking and mental illness, between dreaming life and waking, between illusion and reality.”

Most people want to know more, want me to write about it. I typically say, “So do I.” But until recently, I wasn’t sure it was safe enough to spend time in my head deliberating over whether the radio gods are real or imaginary, or wondering how many people have to believe in order for them to be real. I mean, remember when most people didn’t believe in organic fruit?

Apophenia becomes a liability when our meaning-making machinery detects a clue or a connection that is erroneous or when interpretation “runs wild.”

In a Psychology Today article (published on 11/11/11), an anthropologist writes that apophenia is said to result from “the evolution of human cognition.” He notes, “The ability to spot and recognize patterns is an adaptation with positive feedback for survival. Birds do it, bees do it, even uneducated fleas do it.”

But his ultimate conclusion is that apophenia becomes a liability when our meaning-making machinery detects a clue or a connection that is erroneous or when interpretation “runs wild.”

Was it running wild in Portland that week with all the 308s and 38s? Is it a liability now that I’ve discovered that in gematria, 38 = Toviahu, which is a Hebrew version of my oldest son’s name? Or that week 38 of this year runs from September 16 to September 22, which is also the week of my middle son’s birthday?

Is it a risk that my closest friends believe in magical signs from the universe or that the quickest way for me to fall in love is to discover a man shares a birthday with someone from my family or someone else from my past?

I don’t know the answer.

But perhaps, somewhere on the internet, an ordinary human or a time traveler from 2036 does. And someday, she will tell me and I will believe her.

Healthfully obsessed with dreams, time, music, memory, & love.

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