Occult Topography - or how to help your brain learn magic

At a relatively early stage when we begin to practice magic it is really helpful to develop a proper understanding of the term ‘topography’. Today, especially in the US the term is mainly used to refer to a map with elevation contours. However, its original meaning was much broader and one still can find it being used in its old form in many countries in ‘old Europe’. Topography is made up of the two Greek words ‘place’ (topos) and ‘writing’ (graphia). Thus in its original meaning it signifies an accurate description of a specific place. Such description wasn’t limited to geographic features but could also include an accurate report about the people living in this place, its wildlife, weather and even history.

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Now, if we consider the original meaning of the word topography why could it matter for students of the magical art? Well, to better understand its significance we need to take a brief look at how our human brains like to operate - and especially how they like to process new information.

Of course at this point I might be losing quite a bit of credibility - as I am neither a biologist, psychologist or scientist working on artificial intelligence. Even if we had the chance to put three people of such background into one room and asked them to discuss ‘how human brains operate when processing new information’ I am sure we would be able to witness a lot of academic debate above my pay-grade, eventually resulting in all of them disagreeing with each other… The question simply is too complex, or our sciences still too young to come up with a definite answer. Luckily, for our topic we don’t necessarily need definite facts, but workable theories that allow us to move on, take fresh approaches to our own practices and - most importantly - help us avoid costly mistakes. And it is such a theory that I came across during my studies for a degree on ‘communication science’ years ago. Let me share its simple essence with you - and then bring us back to why this really matters for Neophytes: 

“The schema is a construct used by psychologists in their theories of memory and learning. It is especially useful to those who would characterize comprehension, for comprehension is a learning process in which prior knowledge plays an important role. A schema can be thought of as aknowledge structure, or framework, which interrelates all of one's knowledge about a given topic. Prior knowledge, organized in schemata, in turn influences the form and content of new knowledge.” (Richgels, p.54*)

Here is what this means: very early on in our lives our brain likes to create drawers from the experiences we make. Wether these are first-hand experiences in our waking life or dreams, stories we are being told or things we simply see on TV matters only marginally to our brain. It also likes to arrange our total knowledge, even as it expands, in as little drawers as possible. Thus each drawer not only contains specific, similar episodes tucked away in it, but also cross-references to other drawers. So as we grow up our mind is pretty busy working in the background of our everyday experiences, arranging and re-arranging all of the things we read, hear, see, smell, taste, imagine or dream in the many drawers of the huge filing cupboard that we begin to call ‘ourselves’.

Now, of course the above is a hilariously simplified explanation of schema-theory. In reality the whole cupboard is constantly changing its shape, moving drawers around, merging and dividing them depending on the new information coming in just like cells in a human body. The older the cupboard the more stable things will become, until the whole cupboard - once an elastic, ever expanding network - ends up being rigid like filing cabinet at your local tax authorities, essentially refusing to assign meaning to any new information that doesn’t fit its current order of drawers… All of these details are incredibly interesting with regards to how our brains work and depend upon schemata established in our younger days - but they don’t really matter for our discussion. What matters for us the simple realisation that our brain, indeed, works like a topographer. 

And here is why this really matters for practicing magicians, especially in their early days: In magic we encounter the essential challenge that we engage and aim to work with a realm that more often than not is non-sensible. I.e. much of it eludes our physical senses - especially at the early stages of our work when we haven’t had the chance and time yet to sharpen our raw bodily senses to such a degree that they begin to reach beyond the realm of matter.

This means quite easily it can happen that our brain isn’t given the necessary sensual input to accommodate drawers - and therefore meaning subsequently - to information that belongs to the realm of magic. The filing system it establishes during our early days will just not be able to comprehend and ‘digest’ information relating to magic in a meaningful way. Once such information will eventually reach us through books, friends, etc. our brain will insist it needs to be filed away in the very few drawers that seem relevant: (1) naive child stories, (2) scary horror stories, (3) unscientific superstition stories or - even worse - (4) the black box with the big bold inverted cross on it: rebellious heresy stories.  

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What we encounter at this stage is the idea of a topographer who has begun to think of himself as so far-traveled and so deeply experienced that any new information he comes across categorically has to fit the order of drawers and cabinets he has arranged already. In essence: our brains have grown so confined, so blind on all eyes but the one of ratio and logic that it’s too late to process fundamental changes. The map has settled, it has been sealed and put behind glass - and any new and inconsistent information will go unwritten.

So what do we take from this as practicing magicians? We take that during all these early years when we aren’t Adepts or Ipssissimi just yet, we better read our ancient myths, our old fairy tales, our magical ancestor’s histories - and by this aim to introduce as much cognitive dissonance into our logic-numbed minds as possible by any means. Because what will determine the ‘magical capacity’ of the filing cabinet of our grown-up minds is exactly this: these ancient stories of the past, the myths of nature, of our ancestors’ souls, of the ‘little people’ and the ‘silent people’, of the cults and rites whose living memory has gone to grave with our great-grandfathers and who have survived only in the dark reservations of dreams and battered, second-hand books.

See, without the above foundations reading the Goetia or Arbatel just doesn’t do the trick. Grimoires are nothing but advanced - yet often spurious - ‘grammars’ on how to apply the language of a certain spirit type in practice. Even with the best intent, the topographer that is your mind will flaw any of your attempts to speak this language in a meaningful way - unless you have built a ‘filing system’ in the back of your brain that allows you to process such information in adequate categories.

While this theory of mind provides a simple explanation on why so many magicians these days are doomed to fail, it also points to a truly magical feature of our minds. That is: Simply reading a book can change the structure of your brain! You see, truly magical things can happen once we consciously decide to allow new information to enter into our minds without judgement - and then chose an ancient text written by people who actually held first-hand knowledge about visionary work, divine, angelic and demonic powers and their interplay in creating and constantly re-creating our living world. Reading - if we only allow the process to change the filing cabinet of our minds - can indeed be a powerful act of magic.

Now, to make such an act of magic come true you essentially need two things: 

  1. firstly, an open mind that hasn’t grown rigid yet - which is a mind that embraces cognitive dissonance and values learning more than being right 
  2. and secondly, a genuine magical text that provides information which is worth enriching and re-arranging your mental filing cabinet. 

Here is a highly incomplete and eclectic selection of such texts I have come across:

* In case you want to learn more on Schema-Theory just search for 'Richard Schank' or begin with reading D.J. Richgels' article 'Schema Theory, Linguistic Theory, and Representations of Reading Comprehension' available on JSTOR.