Monday, October 27, 2008

Erasing Conditioning

One of the less controversial powers related to magical work is the ability to work through conditioning in the mind. While the neocortex in humans is much more sophisticated than that of other animals, when we look at the older portions of the brain what we see is not that much different from what we see in rats or pigeons. Conditioning loops work pretty much the same in most organisms with any sort of nervous system, and in fact research on conditioning has been done with aplysia, a sea slug with a nervous system composed of just 26 neurons.

This power is not unique to magick. The various systems of psychotherapy claim to be able to do the same thing. For some systems the evidence is weak at best, but there is one system that seems to hold up to scientific scrutiny - cognitive-behavioral therapy, a system that specifically addresses the effects of conditioning. Whatever the method, the elimination of conditioning contributes greatly to the magical and mystical goal of mindfulness. In Thelema, conditioning is seen as an impediment to the will.

Of course, the conditioning we're talking about is not useful stuff like understanding that fire is hot or knowing how to speak a language. It's the stuff that gets in the way - irrational aversions, addictions, bad habits, and so forth. These reactive conditioning loops are part of our older brain systems and much of the time they make our lives a lot more difficult. Magick can be used to break them, just like cognitive-behavioral therapy, but wouldn't it be nice if there were an easier way?

Well, there might be. Researchers have discovered how to erase conditioning in mice by manipulating a specific brain protein. The headline of the article bills it as "erasing memories" but that just goes to show ignorance on the part of the reporter. There are two kinds of memory - declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memories are those that can be experienced and described, and are usually what we mean when we talk about remembering things. Non-declarative memories are made up of things like skills and conditioning loops, and such memories are not stored the same way or even in the same area of the brain as declarative memories.

The researchers mentioned in this article are "erasing" the memory of an electric shock from the brains of these mice, which clearly falls into the "non-declarative" category, and in fact its unclear whether or not animals like mice have anything resembling declarative memory at all. So this suggests that the technique would work on conditioning, but probably not on declarative memories. For magicians, that could be pretty useful.

Imagine - a pill that you could take whenever a conditioning loop trips you up in your day-to-day life that would erase that particular loop and nothing else. There's a lot of research left to do in order to find out if it really is possible in humans, but at some point in the future it might be.

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