Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Witch Blood?"

One of the concepts that has endured in the magical tradition for a long time is that enhanced magical aptitude can be inherited. This inheritance is often refered to as "witch blood" or something similar. Coming from a "family tradition" is a mark of distinction in some parts of the magical community, but at the same time the idea is strongly opposed in the New Age traditions inspired by the New Thought movement. Those traditions teach that anyone can get magical effects at the same level if they can learn to think about their lives and the universe in the proper way. According to their model inheritance and genetics don't enter into the picture at all.

It always has struck me that working magick should be no different than any other human ability - that is, there's a component that's genetic along with a component that's environmental. Professional athletes, for example, have to possess a great deal of natural talent to be able to perform at an elite level and generally come from families sharing some of that talent. At the same time, if they want to be able to put it to good use they need to work hard developing it as they are growing up. And even once they make it to the professional level, without constant training and exercise their performance will suffer and their talent will effectively go to waste. Just about every other skill a person can develop works much the same way.

The "witch blood" idea, however, suggests a genetic link that is much stronger than that found in athletics or really any other field of endeavor. Among some proponents the condition is treated as either/or much as in the Harry Potter universe you are either a wizard or a "muggle" with no awareness of or power to work magick, though it's hard to say whether the idea comes from fantasy writers like J.K. Rowling or from some legitimate spiritual tradition. While it's important to keep in mind that over the span of human history only a small percentage of people have ever been magicians - a tribe of 30 to 50 people, for example would probably only have one shaman or medicine man - this should not be taken to imply that everyone else in such a tribe would have had no magical gifts at all. Rather, it seems more likely to me that the magick-worker was simply the most talented member of the group while the others possessed varying lesser degrees of aptitude.

So which of these models is most correct? Is magick something everyone can do about as well if they take up the same level of practice, something that only works for wizards but not for "muggles," or something in between? I'm solidly in the middle camp myself, but that's mostly on the basis of anecdotal information gained from knowing a lot of practictioners over the years. In that time I've met people who never did practices before pick up a spell in an afternoon that can produce noticeable paranormal effects, and I've know others who worked hard at their practices but never seemed to get to the point where they were able to do much. At the same time, though, I've never known even a very talented magician who got that far without some solid, disciplined practice.

Neuroscience is slowly closing in on many of the areas once reserved for magick and mysticism. In combination with the article I linked to yesterday on gamma brainwaves and perception, another study that was published at the beginning of March has the potential to shed some light on the old question of whether or "witch blood" really exists. The study looked at brain organization and found that there is a great deal of variation between individuals in terms of how efficiently their neural "wiring" is arranged.

The study published in the international publication The Journal of Neuroscience provides the first evidence of a genetic effect on how ‘cost-efficient’ our brain network wiring is, shedding light on some of the brain’s make up.

Lead author Dr. Alex Fornito from the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre at the University of Melbourne said the findings have important implications for understanding why some people are better able to perform certain tasks than others and the genetic basis of mental illnesses and some neurological diseases.

He said how the brain’s network is organized has been a mystery to scientists for years. “The brain is an extraordinarily complex network of billions of nerve cells interconnected by trillions of fibres,” he said.

“The brain tries to maximize its bang-for-buck by striking a balance between making more connections to promote efficient communication and minimising the “cost” or amount of wiring required to make these connections. Our findings indicate that this balance, called ‘cost-efficiency’, has a strong genetic basis.”

If part of the process of working magick is related to the unified perceptual field that seems to be mediated by gamma brainwave activity, and that activity is synchronized by clusters of neurons sending bursts back and forth very quickly, it stands to reason that the more efficiently someone's brain is organized the better they will be at producing magical effects. If this has a strong genetic link, does that mean the "witch blood" hypothesis is ultimately correct? Could the world really be made up of two distinct populations, one magical and one not? Probably not, given that the genetic link found was 60% - strong, but not rising to a deterministic level.

The research team, which included scientists at the Universities of Queensland and Cambridge, UK compared the brain scans of 38 identical and 26 non-identical twins from the Australian Twin Registry.

Using new techniques, the researchers were able to construct detailed maps of each person’s brain network and measured the cost-efficiency of network connections for the entire brain, as well as for specific brain regions.

“We found that people differed greatly in terms of how cost-efficient the functioning of their brain networks were, and that over half of these differences could be explained by genes,” said Dr. Fornito.

Across the entire brain, more than half (60%) of the differences between people could be explained by genes. Some of the strongest effects were observed for regions of the prefrontal cortex which play a vital role in planning, strategic thinking, decision-making and memory.

What this study supports in the end is some variation on the middle position. In fact much of magical discipline consists of various practices that should strengthen the prefrontal cortex, so it would seem that the tradition has incorporated this concept already, probably by trial and error over the centuries. It would be particularly interesting to put together some sort of wide-scale trial of longtime practicing magicians and see if their brainscans confirm what I would hypothesize based on the data from these two studies - increased "cost-efficiency" in the strategic and decision-making centers of the brain. It would require no additional scanning techniques beyond those used in the twin study, and I think the results could prove invaluable in terms of identifying the brain processes that are involved in using magick effectively.

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Anonymous said...

I'd be inclined to agree with your position on the matter, and suggest that there's just as many biological and environmental influences, that go into any specific magic skill as anything else.

It's a lovely complex thing, and trying to flatten it to any one single component is just... silly, if not an indulgence in lazy thinking.

I've often tentatively suggested that being on the autistic spectrum has actually helped on the magical front, particularly chaos magic, and with some aspects of spirit work.

Ananael Qaa said...

The article doesn't even address the admittedly anecdotal observation that individual magicians tend to be better or worse at particular aspects of the art.

I do think that there are at most a handful of basic aptitudes that combine to produce differences in the ability to learn certain skills, but it would be amazing to run magicians with different sets of talents through a scanner and then see what their invidual brain morphologies have in common and where they differ.

I wouldn't find it surprising that a condition like Asperger Syndrome might help with certain kinds of magical work. Aspies make good computer programmers because they're good at manipulating symbols, and that's also an important ability to have when working formal ritual magick.

Frater A.I.T. said...

@ Fra Ananael

Interesting. I have mild Asperger's myself. It has helped my skill in Magic, and Magic has helped me properly empathize and relate to folk. Nice deal, it's been. The fixating and symbol manipulation bits have been very useful...although it's easy to get caught up in minutia.

Morgan Drake Eckstein said...

The concept of witches running in families comes from the Church. I actually ran across the concept in one of the witch hunting manuals, but for the life I can't rememebr which one.

Ananael Qaa said...

@Morgan: That's how it works in Africa today as well, so it's not that surprising to hear. Most of the time over there if you have a family member accused of witchcraft you automatically come under suspicion yourself.

Curt said...

I tend to believe that magical talent does run in some families. Particularly old families. My family has produced quite a few talented magical folks, including at least one Saint (who I'm convinced was using some sort of magic). I'm not an active practitioner, but even I have more than a little talent for it.