Every year, it seems that the line between magic and science gets a little more blurry. Quantum physics seems determined to become the new mysticism with ideas like morphogenic fields, simulation theory, and the holographic principle.
Meanwhile, occultists are desperate to rationalize their practices with parallels found in theoretic physics.
Entanglement, for instance, may give a scientific basis for explaining the magical idea of “like begets like,” in that two particles which have become “entangled” appear to react to a stimulus simultaneously, despite their isolation from one another in space.
There’s also the “Copenhagen Interpretation,” which states that a quantum particle is always in a superposition, or taking up all possible positions at once, and is only fixed when it is observed. In opposition to this interpretation, we have the “Many-Worlds” theory, which posits that when there is more than one possible outcome of an action, an entire universe is created for each one. Both of these theories can be applied to magic. If you go with the Copenhagen Interpretation, you can say that an act of magic is influencing where the quantum particle “lands.” If you prefer the Many-Worlds theory, it can be said that the act places the operator in a universe where the chosen outcome is a reality.
But quantum physics isn’t the only area of scientific study that seems to be proving what mystics and occultists have said all along. The fields of psychology, cognitive studies, or neurophysiology can also be veritable treasure troves for the wise magician.
Two studies, for instance, appear to give credence to the practice known to members of the Golden Dawn and O.T.O. as “Assumption of the Godform,” a type of invocation where a magician will meditate on a deity, and through creative visualization of the subject, will align themselves with that entity, often adopting the actual physical pose of the deity. By performing this act, it is said that the “aura” of the entity replaces that of the magician, essentially possessing them.
In 2010, a study led by social psychologist Amy Cuddy experimented with what she refers to as “high-power, nonverbal displays,” or open, expansive postures which express comfort, assertiveness, and alpha-type stances. Participants in the study were asked to assume different postures for one minute each. One group took on high-power poses: limbs extended outward, heads up, trunk exposed, while the other took on low-power poses: limbs tucked in, head down, trunk covered.
Both groups were then asked to describe their emotional state, and were offered the chance to gamble the money they received for the study, possibly doubling their pay.
The power-pose group reported feeling “powerful,” “in-charge,” and were more likely to take the chance on gambling their earnings. The low-power group reported feeling “powerless” and “insignificant,” tending to decline the gambling prospect. Even more interesting were the results obtained from the participants’ saliva samples, which, in the high-power group, showed an increase in testosterone (the hormone associated with assertive behavior and risk-taking) and decreases in cortisol (the stress hormone associated with fear and flight response). Meanwhile, the low-power group had the opposite physiological response, with an increase in cortisol and a decrease in testosterone.
The discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys by neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti in the 1980s also helps to explain the success of assuming godforms. By placing electrodes into the ventral premotor cortex of monkeys, it was found that one monkey’s neuron activity was the same when picking up a fruit as when it watched another monkey pick up that same fruit. When the monkey saw a fruit become hidden by an object, then saw the experimenter reach behind the obstruction, the same neurons fired as well. In other words, observing an action made by another, or even just imagining it, has the same effect as performing the action yourself.
The outcome of Dr. Cuddy’s study tells us that the physical posture taken on by the body leads to actual hormonal, and subsequently, behavioral changes, while the discovery of mirror neurons tells us that just by thinking of something, our neurological activity will reflect that thought as though it were happening. Connecting these two discoveries helps to explain how adapting one’s posture to match that of a deity’s representation added to the active imagining of the deity would result in a physiological and psychological change, making the person act and think as that deity.
Another invocational practice similar to the assumption of godforms is the ritual use of masks, practiced by numerous indigenous cultures, as well as modern occult groups. By wearing the mask of an animal or god, the magician can become possessed by the spirit of that animal or god.
One scientific study of this mechanism was conducted by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky in 2012. They called the phenomenon “Enclothed Cognition.” The experiment was simple. Fifty-eight undergraduates were given what’s called the “Stroop Test,” where color words are flashed onto a screen, each one displayed in an incongruent color from the word itself. For example, the word “blue” can be colored red, “green” colored purple, etc. The tested students had to quickly name the color of the text as it flashed by.
Half of the students were also given lab coats to wear during the test. Those that did, on average, made only half of the mistakes made by their fellows in the other group.
In a subsequent experiment, one third of a test group was given lab coats and told that they were a doctor’s coat. Another third was given an identical coat, but told that it was a painter’s smock. The final third were dressed normally, but with the lab coat displayed where it could be seen.
During this experiment, all participants were given two images that were identical, except for a number of minor discrepancies, and were given the same amount of time to find those discrepancies. Of the three groups, those who were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat found an average of 20% more discrepancies than those who had been told it was a painter’s smock, and those who only saw the coat found just a little less than the painter group.
This study illustrates how a single item of clothing, when associated with high cognitive attention, can have a measurable effect on the wearer’s abilities. It doesn’t seem to be too far of a leap to extend the possibility of it also having an effect on the personality as well.
The practices of science and magic are more alike than either of these parties would care to admit, both of which revolve around the use of experimentation to understand and master the mysteries of the world we live in. The problem between the two possibly lies in the philosophical boxes of materialism and religious thinking which they are often forced into.
But magic and science don’t have to be at odds, after all, and it’s my hope that studies like these may hold the key to a middle way in which these two camps can finally reconcile their differences.