Monday, November 26, 2018

Thinking as Navigation

Science Daily has an article up today discussing the idea that human cognition may be closely related to spatial navigation. I've talked a bit over the years how I think that conflating thought and language is a big mistake, in part because my mind clearly (to me, anyway) does much of its internal processing using spatial rather than linguistic means and it always has seemed obvious to me that this is just how thinking works - though of course this is a classic "generalization from self" and there are apparently a significant number of people out there who do think mostly in words and probably find my self-description as mystifying as I find theirs. The article discusses how spatial thinking seems to work and some of the implications of this new model.

In their proposal, [Christian] Doeller and his team combine individual threads of evidence to form a theory of human thinking. The theory begins with the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of place and grid cells in rodents' brains, which were subsequently shown to exist in humans. Both cell types show patterns of activity representing the animal's position in space, for example, while it forages for food. Each position in space is represented by a unique pattern of activity. Together, the activity of place and grid cells allows the formation of a mental map of the surroundings, which is stored and reactivated during later visits.

The very regular activation pattern of grid cells can also be observed in humans -- but importantly, not only during navigation through geographical spaces. Grids cells are also active when learning new concepts, as shown by a study from 2016. In that study, volunteers learned to associate pictures of birds, which only varied in the length of their necks and legs, with different symbols, such as a tree or a bell. A bird with a long neck and short legs was associated with the tree whereas a bird with a short neck and long legs belonged to the bell. Thus, a specific combination of bodily features came to be represented by a symbol.

In a subsequent memory test, performed in a brain scanner, volunteers indicated whether various birds were associated with one of the symbols. Interestingly, the entorhinal cortex was activated, in much the same way as it is during navigation, providing a coordinate system for our thoughts. "By connecting all these previous discoveries, we came to the assumption that the brain stores a mental map, regardless of whether we are thinking about a real space or the space between dimensions of our thoughts. Our train of thought can be considered a path though the spaces of our thoughts, along different mental dimensions," Jacob Bellmund, the first author of the publication, explains.

This got me thinking about how I teach and practice magick, and some of the possible connections between the way my mind works and the magical methods that I find to be the most effective. Most of my original ideas are based on spatial mapping, such as the "fields" formed by the Lesser Pentagram and Hexagram Rituals and the "tuning" of those fields using the corresponding Greater rituals. My use of containment structures and links are likewise based on space and mapping, though the whole point of using a link is to add a non-local component to whatever rite you happen to be performing.

Many people have found my methods more effective in practice, though I have received some criticism as well. It makes me wonder if the people who get the best results are people like me, whose minds run in a more spatial direction. That would imply that linguistics-based methods might work better for people with language-based thought processes is it is simply a case of engaging your mind in the proper way. I naturally am a little dubious about this - the macrocosm is made up of space and time, after all, and it seems to me like it would be all too easy to fall into mental disconnection having to keep parsing space into words. At the same time, I don't have a mind like that so maybe I just don't get it.

What this basically means is that until we have a more comprehensive theory, the basic rule of magick has to remain "if it works, it works." We don't know enough about possible differences in the activity of consciousness between individuals, let alone between individuals and disembodied entities like spirits. I invite everyone to try out my methods, of course, and see if they work better. But if they don't for a particular person, that doesn't mean the person is wrong. It just means that they may be different.

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