'Drowned' Boy Reveals the Psychology of Miracles

//

Photo: Getty Images

A young boy’s recovery from drowning earlier this week is being credited to a miracle.

Dale Ostrander, 12, was swimming in the ocean at Long Beach, WA., when he got sucked under by a rogue wave. He was there as part of a church group, who cried and prayed while searchers looked for the boy. About fifteen minutes later two rescuers found Ostrander, pulled him to safety, and performed CPR. he was then flown to an Oregon hospital, where he was put into an induced coma and recovered on Monday. Ostrander’s friends and family are crediting prayer (with a little help from doctors, of course). His recovery has been widely dubbed a miracle.

Was it a miracle? How we interpret miracles depends on several factors, including our religious beliefs and our knowledge of medicine and statistics.

For many, unusual and positive events can seem miraculously rare, when in reality they are not. For example, many people consider surviving an airplane crash to be a miracle. In fact, statistics show that most people involved in airplane crashes and accidents survive without life-threatening injuries. Plane crashes are very rare, and incidents where everyone aboard is killed are incredibly rare. Since surviving a plane crash is far more common than being killed in a plane crash, it’s wonderful for the survivors, but hardly unusual.

NEWS: Faith Healing on Trial: Miracle or Medicine?

Other times what appears to be a miracle to a layperson or a victim’s family is not considered a miracle by medical professionals, who may see similar cases on a routine basis. Doctors know that it’s not unusual for drowning victims—especially ones who have been underwater for about 20 minutes or less, as Ostrander was—to survive and fully recover.

As ABCNews reported,

Dr. Benjamin Abella, director of clinical research in the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania said Ostrander’s survival may be due to the fact that he was submerged in frigid water. “A number of studies have shown that hypothermia — reduced body temperature — is highly protective of the brain when it is starved for oxygen and blood flow,” Abella told ABC News. “The water that bathed him was certainly quite cold, and it’s likely that his core body temperature dropped during his cardiac arrest event.” Abella said Ostrander’s youth and overall health may have also helped his chances. “There have been a number of reported cases where people have been rescued from icy water and restored to health,” he said. “These cases are not common, but they aren’t as rare as one might think.

This is widely known in the medical community, and suggests that fatalistic predictions about Ostrander that appear in media accounts such as “they never expected him to live” (or in a contradictory prognosis, “expected him to be a vegetable”) were exaggerated.

There’s also a psychological process called confirmation bias, in which people tend to seek out, focus on, and remember information that supports their ideas and beliefs while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts or undermines their beliefs.

This helps explain why, for example, God was credited for saving Ostrander’s life through miraculous, divine intervention, but He was not blamed for the boy’s accident.

Surely God could have simply prevented Ostrander from drowning in the first place, saving his friends and family untold grief and worry (not to mention medical bills). If you’re going to credit God for saving the boy’s life, logically you should blame God for threatening the boy’s life. How do people reconcile this contradiction?

It goes back to the psychology of how the faithful, such as Ostrander’s parents, perceive God and divine actions. The idea of God trying to kill their child by drowning is hardly comforting, or something they would expect. But the idea of a benevolent God rescuing their son (especially after fervent prayers) is classic divine behavior and confirms their belief system, so that’s what they choose to focus on.

The facts are the same either way: a boy drowned and then recovered. Whether people choose to see a miracle in that is all a matter of psychology, statistics, and faith; we filter our perceptions, embracing a comforting interpretation of the events over a troubling one. Miracles are very much in the minds of those who see them.