Do you get up from the right side of your bed every day?

Have you forwarded messages of “pass this message to 25 people to bring you good luck, avoiding which will invoke a curse” to unsuspecting friends knowing fully well that the recipients of the said message might be the only ones to curse you?

Do you try to sneeze in even numbers?

Do you try to walk backwards on your way out from temples in an attempt NOT to anger the Gods?

Well, for a long long time in my childhood, I would. I learnt about superstitions from a few of my very knowledgeable primary school class mates who vouched for the guarantee of these behaviors. As I grew up, I realized that most of them sounded illogical, but was mildly scared to let go of them. Though I believed that I am a reasonably logical person.

Hence, it both fascinates and intrigues me as to what makes people superstitious.

As my practice caters mainly to the needs of the rural and semi urban population of Malnad, my tryst with superstition happens on a daily basis. Most of our patients walk in with some sort of talisman across their wrist or neck. It has also happened that the priest of some temple would have referred the patient to me after doing his bit. It is important to note that I am the second choice of care giving! So much for doctor pride.

When I started my practice, I believed that people from remote villages or the uneducated would be major prey to superstition. A few years into my practice upended this “superstitious” belief of mine. I have seen a professor of physics move his house five times in one year to help ward off evil spirits from his possessed daughter, a doctor waiting for a flower to drop on the right side his family deity as a sign of a go ahead to start building his hospital and an NRI staying away from the pickle jar during her period for the fear of making it go bad!

So what starts a superstition?

Superstitions are long-held beliefs that appear to be rooted in coincidence or cultural tradition rather than logic or facts.

Our logical brain tries to find the cause for every positive or negative outcome in life so that we can be better prepared the next time through for similar events. Our ancestors were probably the same, but lacked the required knowledge base. This led to correlating events which were ideally unrelated but were temporally linked. Pass it down a few generations, and viola, we had a superstition.

It is said that superstitions arise due to

  1. Irrational biases which were rational at some point of time. Suppose my great great grandmother happened to scarf down a spoonful of mango pickle without washing her hands (the importance of which was probably unknown ) and the pickle went bad…she would have been really upset about her hard work going down the drain. She would have also wondered why this happened and how she could prevent it. Not knowing about sanitation and bacteria, she might have decided that the only change in the routine was being on her menstrual period that day (which again, she did not know the cause of) and hence the two were undoubtedly linked. She would have probably told her daughters and granddaughters to avoid touching the pickle jar during their period because of what happened to her. The grand daughter would have passed on this valuable bit of information to her close friend in school and so on. Before you know it, a superstitious belief was born!
  2. As a way to relieve anxiety. We humans are not comfortable with the idea of not being in control of our lives, our jobs and so on. We also know that however much we try, we cannot predict what happens in our future. And this can cause anxiety. Hence we hold on to certain beliefs which promise us the outcome that we want. For example, a sportsperson wearing his/her favourite jersey as a sign of good luck.
  3. As a habit. Because…what if? When the superstition is harmless, does not take much time or energy, and is being followed by our society at large, then we make a ritual out of it. Most of the times, even when there is no actual threat or danger, we end up following them as we do not want to take any chances. Getting up from the right side of the bed falls into this category.

How do we decide whether superstitions are harmless or a sign of mental illness?

The relationship between superstitions and mental illness is a complex one.

When the superstitious beliefs are individualistic and become repetitive rituals which hamper the person’s lifestyle, the individual may be diagnosed as having obsessive compulsive disorder

When the superstitious belief, of  black magic or voodoo being done becomes a persistent thought and the individual starts building his life around this thought, then he/she may be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.

There are studies which report  that people who are highly anxious are more susceptible to superstitious beliefs.

Superstitious beliefs play a major role in the treatment of many ills, especially those related to the mind. There are temples dedicated to healing people with illness, unfortunately filled with inhuman practices like whipping, stripping the patient, burning them or starving them. Despite rising awareness about mental illness, these practices still exist and thrive.

Hence, to decide whether a belief is harmless or needs to be rooted out with immediate effect, depends on these few factors.

  1. Whether it takes a lot of time off from the activities that actually need to be done
  2. Whether life has started to revolve around this belief which is partially recognized as illogical
  3. Whether such beliefs are propagated to and forced upon people who are unwilling to believe it

If the answer is yes to all the three questions, then help needs to be sought.

As a person who has seen the ugly side of superstition, I try my best  to educate every patient or my children’s friends about why it is important to think rationally.

But I also sheepishly admit that I start walking imperceptibly slow so that someone else overtakes me when a cat has crossed my path. Just to cover my bases!


About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

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