"To be accurate in doing an action with a tool, you need to make the tool become a part of your body," the study's first author Lucilla Cardinali of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Bron and Claude Bernard University in Lyon told The Scientist. "Your brain needs to take into account that the action is performed with something added to your body part."
The study was conducted by having subjects work with a gripping tool that was longer than the normal reach of their arms for a period of time and then conducting a series of tests to gauge whether or not they perceived their arms to be longer.
Cardinali, a graduate student with INSERM's Alessandro Farnè, gave people a mechanical grabber that extended their reach and found that people with the arm-elongating tool took longer to grasp and point to an object after the gizmo was taken away compared to before they held the tool. They then showed that this delayed reaction time is a normal response of people with naturally longer arms, thus indicating that tool users judge their arms to be longer than they truly are. The researchers also asked blindfolded participants to touch specific landmarks on their arm -- the elbow, wrist and middle fingertip -- and showed that people perceived these spots as further along the limb after having played with the gadget arm.
This is one of those things that feels like basic common sense, but until now there has been little research testing the idea that tools can alter body image. Most of us have had the experience of driving a car, for example. While you're on the road the car feels like it's a part of you once your driving skill reaches a certain level. You don't think about each individual action you take as you drive, you just think "I'm going that way" and your brain and body automatically handle the necessary actions that make it so. This is true of many complex tasks in our day-to-day lives involving tools and implements.
Assuming that this research is accurate, it seems to me that the same principle could be applied to magical tools. In fact, it may be that the use of magical tools exploits this same principle in the service of spiritual evolution. As a magician you want to develop the realization that "you" are larger than the boundaries of your skin. Lon Milo Duquette describes this realization as "it's all in your head, you just have no idea how big your head really is." In practice, I have found the realization that my entire field of perception is in a meaningful sense "me" increases the power of practical magical rituals substantially. It's accurate in an objective scientific sense as well, since everything that we experience in the mundane world is mediated by our brains and what we usually experience as "seeing," for example, is actually a set of internal neural firing patterns that arise in response to patterns of light in the environment.
In my temple I have four small altars at the corners corresponding to the four directions. On each directional altar I have a candle of the appropriate color, a corresponding Egyptian deity statue, and the corresponding elemental tool. Using the model from the study, as I use each tool I perceive it to be a part of my body. It seems logical, then, that when I replace it at the corresponding quarter it would help to extend my sense of self in that direction. Using all four tools in sequence, as in a ritual like the Opening by Watchtower, should extend my sense of self to encompass the entire temple. Practices like the visualization of lineal figures at the quarters also help to accomplish the shift in awareness from the body to the entire working space, and at some point this realization "clicks" and becomes permanent.
While a magician can accomplish this realization without the use of tools by visualization alone, it makes sense to me that in our practices we should exploit every brain mechanism we can in order to speed our progress along the path. Tool use appears to be one of those mechanisms, so in the light of this new research perhaps those of us who generally work without tools might want to reconsider their use.