Are you still using the same old brain you had when you started practicing magick? Probably not.
Until nearly the end of the Twentieth Century, most neuroscientists believed that once a human brain was formed in childhood, it would remain pretty much the same throughout its life. Injury or disease could kill off brain cells but, other than that, what was in your head was yours, for better or worse, until the day you died. When sophisticated brain-imaging technology appeared in the 1980s, however, scientists changed their minds about brain change. We now know that the brain not only can rewire itself very quickly, it can also grow new cells. The ability of the brain to change itself is called 1
So what does this have to do with magick? When we talk about using magick to change ourselves, our lives, or our perception, we are talking, in part, about neurological change. Our brains must change if our experience of the world is to change. If we want more fun, inspiration, wisdom, compassion, or knowledge, then we must teach our neurology to organize itself for more inspiration, wisdom, compassion, or knowledge. If we invoke the Goddess of Wisdom, we do so because we hope that her wisdom will change us or change our lives in some way. The sensory experience of being in the presence of a deity impresses itself upon our being and physically upon the structure of our brains.
The idea of magick as brain-change is quite a bit older than our modern concept of neuroplasticity. In the introduction to the 1904 edition of The Goetia of Solomon the King, occultist Aleister Crowley wrote that the spirits of the Goetia, the "demons" summoned forth by the rituals of evocation, were "parts of the human brain."2 A radical concept at the time, that’s about as far as Uncle Al’s neuroscientific speculation went, but the implications were extensive. If we are able to exert influence over these entities, we must also be influencing the parts of the brain that they represent. If the entity changes, then the area of the brain that it represents also changes. The traditional magician was encouraged to believe that he or she would be, in some way, permanently changed by this kind of magical experience. In fact, some ritual techniques seem so well-designed toward increasing neuroplasticity that we might suggest that the magicians of the past had a pretty good idea how the human brain learns, changes, and grows.
Most systems of magick have at least the presupposition that we can make fundamental changes to our consciousness and life. By practicing ritual, we eventually develop new skills and new functions. We may learn to perceive the astral, communicate with entities, and develop strategies for self-knowledge and motivation, among much else. We may hope to come away from our magical explorations wiser, happier, and more adaptable to the circumstances that life hands to us. These skills and functions are at least partly based in our brains and bodies and they may be tracked and understood through physiological and neurological changes.
In short, if the goal of magick is to change your reality, the change begins in the brain and both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis may play a part. Even better, if we can design our ritual techniques with brain change in mind, we may find that our rituals are that much more powerful.
There are many ways to encourage both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Almost any kind of learning will change neural pathways. Drugs of various kinds encourage growth and change in the brain. For instance, recent genomic research into LSD demonstrated that the chemical activates genes responsible for neuroplasticity. 3 That seems to suggest that psychedelics tap directly into the brain’s ability to learn. Some antidepressant drugs activate neurogenesis in the hippocampus (which may be a more important mode of action in the treatment of depression than serotonin uptake inhibition). 4 Movement and exercise promote both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. 5
For our purposes, we’ll consider three factors of perceptual experience that encourage neuroplasticity and neurogenesis: intensity, duration, and novelty. 6 It’s simple enough: if an experience is intense enough, we remember it. How easy is it to recall a particularly intense experience that you’ve had recently or in the past? If an experience lasts long enough, we remember it. How easy is it to recall the things that you do every day of your life? If an experience is new and different enough, we remember it. How easy is it to recall your first kiss, your first rock concert, or your first time driving a car? Intense experiences change us and so do new and different experiences, as does repetition and rehearsal.
Aleister Crowley summarized the technique of invocation as "Enflame thyself with praying," suggesting intensity and duration, at the least. 7
A ritual or meditation practice that continues over time may partake of all three factors. The discipline of daily practice supplies duration; the change of state created by the practice creates novelty; and continued improvement in concentration and technique can increase intensity. Indeed, brain imaging studies of experienced meditators demonstrate physical changes in the brain. A 2005 study of experienced practitioners of Vipassana ("insight" or "mindfulness" meditation) conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, demonstrated that the practice appeared to encourage neuroplasticity and neurogenesis in particular areas of the cerebral cortex associated with attention, memory, and integration of emotions. The brain scans showed that these areas were thicker in experienced Vipassana practitioners than in the non-meditating control group. 8
When learning or creating a ritual, attention to intensity, duration, and novelty can yield even more powerful results. As you begin to practice, ask yourself: Is this ritual intense enough? Do I spend enough time practicing it? Am I learning or creating something new to me?
The intensity of a ritual can be increased by adding details or complexity, including (but not limited to) techniques for altering consciousness, more participants, deeper breathing, gestures, dances and other physical movements, chants, music, images, and narrative flow. Add components to your ritual that excite your sensibilities and promote your passion.
The duration of a ritual is often best when guided by the goals and content of the work. Some rituals will be conducive to very quick and efficient practice and some will benefit from lengthier involvement. The element of duration can be added to even short rituals, of course, by repeated practice over time.
Novelty can always be found by learning new things and exposing yourself to new experiences. Learning new movements of any kind can be a powerful way to promote neurogenesis. Learn a new skill and incorporate it into your ritual: drawing, painting, singing, playing an instrument, writing a poem, performing mathematical feats, translating a foreign language, twisting your body into yogic puzzles. Do things you’ve never done before!
Now, the experienced magicians reading this have already realized that these are all things traditionally recommended in a ritual practice. The slight difference is that, with some understanding of how our brains respond to these ritual elements, we can design or improvise methods with increased brain-change in mind. By keeping the factors of intensity, duration, and novelty in mind, we can assure that we learn and grow from our magick.