Magic Is Mental

"Don't look at me like I'm going to shoot lightning from my fingers or summon the Devil. Or worse, like I think I can. Magic is a psychological discipline."
— Alan Crowe, magician, Global Frequency #5

A trope that is nearly omnipresent when magic is involved: Magic is a product of the mind, not the body. Magic requires study and concentration to use. The best mages are smart, wise, perceptive and are all around great minds. It's even in the word "Wizard", which used to mean "Philosopher" and came from the word "Wise". The word magic itself descends from magos, meaning "one of the members of the learned and priestly class" from ancient Persia. It's not accidental wordplay that forces you to learn basic spelling before you can study spellcasting.

As such, this trope has many, many consequences: In an ensemble group, those with magics will tend to be the smartest. They are the most well-learned, those who have studied and are the wisest. They will be The Smart Guy.

In games with stats, magic is often related to a "mental" attribute if it's not its own, segregated attribute. Popular choices are intelligence/smarts/logic, willpower/wisdom/spirit or charisma/personality. Different types of magic may require different attributes, with Hermetic Magic favoring the first, and divine magic favoring the second.

This trope is why we have Squishy Wizard - magic requires a strong mind, not a strong body, and this is the handwave often used.

Often, Asian works follow the trope less rigorously, with magic being shown as a product of both mind and body. Thus seeing characters study, train and combine magic with martial arts is not rare.

Note even in some works where magic IS mental, there is "backlash", which damages the mage's body. At a low level, it causes exhaustion; at a high level, it causes death.

Related to Enlightenment Superpowers. Psychic Powers may be the modern equivalent. See also Ritual Magic, which may involve a lot of memorization and concentration. Not to be confused with (but might coexist with) Power Born of Madness. Compare Emotional Powers.


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    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Comic book characters using magic (especially the wizard kind) often are intellectuals. Notably, DC Comics' Doctor Fate and Marvel's Doctor Strange are two spellcasters with the title of "Doctor", which itself implies a level of education (e.g. Doctor Strange was a neurosurgeon and his successor, Doctor Voodoo, was a psychologist).
    • Strange in particular has mentioned that spellcasting requires a strictly disciplined, focused mind. "If you do not pay the utmost attention, magic can get away from you in a heartbeat. Every spell, every sigil, every manipulation... you must keep a close eye on everything so it doesn't backfire."

  • In Star Wars, the Force (a Sci-Fi Counterpart of magic, essentially) operates this way. Thus Jedi utilize various meditation techniques to calm themselves and clear their minds for the better use of their Force ability. The body is irrelevant-Yoda, a diminutive being, is one of the most powerful Force users we see. If the Force user does not believe they can do something (as shown in The Empire Strikes Back), it doesn't work. Mental states like emotions thus have a huge effect in not only focusing their Force ability but also shaping the user. Negative emotions like anger, fear and hate will affect them negatively too. Indeed they're actively addictive and corrupting.

  • In Discworld, wizard-magic is based on knowledge (the three known wizarding universities are the Disc's centres of pure learning, compared with the vocational schools run by the guilds), and witch-magic is based on force of personality. (In D&D terms, Intelligence and Charisma.)
  • In the Imager Portfolio series by L. E. Modesitt, Imagers use their 'magic' completely with their minds, by seeing/imagining them in their heads, but they have to have a complete mental picture and understanding of its elemental and chemical make up or they can do things like blow themselves up by mixing chemicals which react explosively with each other. They also can image in their sleep as they dream, so they have to sleep in protected, lead shielded rooms, alone, even if they are married (or they could accidentally kill their spouses).
  • This is how (human) magic works in Rivers of London books. You have to learn the mental forms in order to do magic, and practice visualising the concepts or it doesn't work. To make things harder, thanks to Isaac Newton, all the names of the forms are in Latin. And the forms have to stack in order to work. To throw a fireball, you have to learn how to visualise the fire, then how to visualise it moving, then have to visualise how to make it track a target... And after that your brain trickles out your ears (if you've done it wrong).
  • In Necroscope, in order to gain the power to time travel and teleport, Harry Keogh, and his heirs, has first to be able to calculate the infinite length of a Moebius strip in finite terms. When he is stripped of his ability to do math, he loses that ability. He has other innate abilities, and most psi users' abilities are inborn, but this one has to be learned and expressed mathematically.
  • The Dresden Files magic stems from life and emotions, but concentration and willpower are what allows one to use magic to achieve anything.
    • Also an interesting case in that an individual body can affect magic ability as much as a mind does.
    • The arguably best example is the Archive — superlative spellcasting ability (thanks to being the hereditary repository of all written human knowledge) in the body of a child when Harry meets her for the first time.
  • Very much in effect with sorcery, the primary magic-system in Belgariad, which is also called "the Will and the Word" for a reason — the sorcerer needs to will something to happen, then use a spoken word (what word isn't important, as long as the sorcerer can see some connection between it and the effect they want) to actually make it happen. Of course, if you try to do something too far removed from reality, expect the natural forces involved to slap you down rather painfully.
  • In the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, magic is commonly referred to as "lore", and it almost invariably requires great knowledge, wisdom, and insight in order to use properly. Most powerful magic-users (including the Lords, the Unfettered, the Insequent, Kasreyn, and ur-vile loremasters) are people of a scholarly bent, and even though Covenant's magic derives from his ring rather than any particular learning, he still needs to work out his inner demons before he can use his power consistently. The only exceptions to this rule are inherently magical beings like the Elohim, Lord Foul, and certain inherently magical beasts like sandgorgons or skurj, whose powers are simply a function of being what they are.
  • In A Certain Magical Index, espers rely on extremely complex mental equations to use their abilities, and as a result they possess Super Intelligence as a Required Secondary Power. Accelerator, the world's strongest esper, has a brain superior to the world's fastest supercomputers and becomes significantly weaker after suffering brain damage. It's even possible for certain espers to boost their powers by linking their minds together to spread out the work.
  • Apart from deep study about the occultist subjects, in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, "magic" is heavily linked to the mind -and brain- and depends on things as intelligence, knowledge, and willpower. For example, the highly intelligent Charles Dexter Ward made an intense research about summoning the dead, and although his mental abilities were more than enough to achieve his goal, his very young and susceptible mind backfired him as he was swapped by his much more powerful identical great-great-grandparent. Also in one story it is made clear that male witches are stronger than female ones because their brains are just more complex.
  • Schooled In Magic: The formation of a spell is regularly compared with the writing of computer code, only in the mind alone. Great mental discipline is required to do anything worthwhile with magic and a lack of discipline would be deadly.
  • In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, almost all magic involves harnessing spirits, all varieties of which require different methods to summon, contain, and control, and information about which is recorded in books in numerous dead languages (partially because the information is old, partially to stop commoners from learning about it). As such being a magician involves fluency in multiple languages, memorizing an exhaustive list of symbols and being able to reproduce them perfectly and with correct placement, as well as remembering huge amounts of trivia as to the idiosyncrasies of various subspecies. Children are given an extensive intelligence test to determine whether they have the capacity to become a magician.
  • In The Traitor Son Cycle, sorcerers craft their spells in their mind palaces, so a sharp mind, a good memory and an ability to focus quickly are all required to be any good at magic.

     Oral Tradition 
  • Most depictions of Merlin fit this. He's a wise adviser, and a powerful wizard.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, wizards used their intelligence as the stat governing their magic. Clerics used wisdom. In later edition, some classes used charisma. Generally, "Learned" arcane magic was tied to intelligence, divine and natural magic to wisdom, and inborn magic to charisma.
    • 4th edition both inverts the trope, and plays it straight. Wizards and sorcerers use Intelligence and Charisma respectively, but a sorcerer's secondary attributes key off his Strength and Dexterity, while some Wizard builds use Dexterity or Constitution as opposed to Wisdom or Charisma. Warlocks can use Charisma or Constitution as their primary stat, and Battleminds (psychic warriors) use Constitution.
    • Pathfinder averts this for the Scarred Witch Doctor (a Witch archetype exclusive to Orcs) and the Kineticist (a occult Bender), both of which use Constitution as casting stat, with the Kineticist also using Dexterity for secondary effects.
  • In Shadowrun, Magic is it's own attribute, but only the mental attributes (Willpower, Intuition and Charisma) can be used to resist drain, the strain of using magic. Thus having higher attributes allows one to cast more spells.
  • In most Savage Worlds setting, magic is related to the spirit attribute. If not, it's smarts. But always one of those two.
  • In Magic: The Gathering in-role your cards are your spells, and you draw them from your library. Many cards that affect cards in your hand and library (drawing, discarding, searching, etc.) represent things happening to the mind or knowledge, and a few other cards represent things happening to cards in your graveyard (your discard pile) as affecting memories. In terms of flavour, the colours of magic are largely defined by one's mindset and belief system, but ultimately magic is just a tool usable by pretty much everyone (i.e. Jace Beleren, a Blue spellcaster, has made use of both White and Black spells), so averted aside from spells associated with the mind.
  • In GURPS, "Magery" (the advantage that allows you to be a mage) is a mental advantage, which means that it stems from your mind rather than from your body (so it stays with you if you switch bodies with someone, etc.)
    • Also, the default magic system has spells being skills based on the IQ attribute.
  • World of Darkness:
    • Deliberately and consistently averted. In both Mage: The Ascension and the later Mage: The Awakening, both a character's raw magical power and their capability with different sorts of magic were based on traits (Arete and Gnosis, respectively, for power and Spheres or Arcana for ability) completely separate from the mundane ones (including intelligence and the like). That means that mechanically speaking, nothing is preventing you from making a wizard who's anything from a borderline mental retard to a world-class genius - and nothing is preventing the former from being a far greater wizard than the later. Rotes (highly specific magical effects with a higher chance of working, as opposed to the more commonly used "improvised" magic) are always based on a mundane skill and attribute in addition to a magical one, but those could just as easily be Stamina and Streetwise as Intelligence and Science.
    • Played straight in the fanmade Genius: The Transgression, though: while the raw power of your Mad Science and your various capabilities within the field are determined by independent traits (Inspiration and Axioms), the actual process of creating Wonders always depends upon a mental attribute (intelligence if you're working methodically in a lab, wits if you're kitbashing on the spot), so a stupid Mad Scientist wouldn't last long. To prevent this, each Mad Scientist actually gets a bonus to either attribute during character creation - making sure that there wouldn't be, by default, any stupid ones, that they'd be smarter than the average person on average, and that they would be far more likely to be literal geniuses rather than just Mad ones.
  • Averted in Feng Shui, which has a separate Magic stat that has no connection to the mental statistics.
  • In The Dresden Files, the three key magic skills — for characters who have the appropriate powers to begin with — are Lore (knowing what you're doing), Conviction (literally the strength of your beliefs), and Discipline (staying focussed). Physical traits don't enter the picture, although it's also worth noting that nothing prevents a wizard from being hopelessly ignorant in the fields of mundane higher knowledge (covered by the Scholarship skill).

    Video Games 
  • In Ogre Battle, Intelligence determines a magic attack's damage.
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • Throughout the series (prior to Skyrim doing away with Attributes), the "Schools of Magic" are tied to "mental" attributes (Intelligence, Willpower, and Personality). Additionally, your maximum Magicka is determined by your Intelligence (with multipliers applied based on your race and birthsign), while your Magicka regen rate is determined by your Willpower.
    • In each of the games, the Mages Guild (or local equivalent) essentially doubles as the guild for scholars as well. In Skyrim, it is even called a college.
    • The notion of Soul Gems also feeds into this. With very few exceptions (usually related to divine magic), all of the enchanted objects in the setting are powered by living souls whose energy is trapped in physical gems. The implication, of course, is that objects need the power of a mind in order to have magical ability.
  • In the Ultima games, one's spellcasting depends on either intelligence or wisdom.
  • In the Wizardry series, spellcasters depend on either intelligence, senses or piety.
  • Diablo III uses Wisdom as the attribute governing mana and magic damage.
  • In Warcraft III, intelligence dictates a hero's mana, and magical heroes' damage.
  • In Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy XI, intelligence dictates black magic damage while mind/spirit dictates white magic. In most other games of the series, Magic Power is its own stat or intelligence governs all types of magic.
  • In Quest for Glory, Intelligence affects your ability to cast spells and your mana if you are a Magic User.
  • In Fable, Magic falls under "Will".
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, Willpower determines mana.
    • Interesting subversion in that Cunning— the stat that models the character's raw intellectual capacity, social acumen, cleverness and perceptiveness, does not aid magic in any way.
  • In the Lufia games, Intelligence determines spellcasting power.
  • Games based on or inspired by Dungeons & Dragons do this:
  • Golden Sun has this in the form of psynergy, short for psychic energy.
  • Dark Souls has this with standard sorcery, as intelligence raises your ability to use sorcery catalysts and allows you to learn higher level spells.
  • In the MOTHER series, the amount of PP is determined by IQ, and attacks that disrupt the opponent's senses renders them unable to use PSI.
  • Shin Megami Tensei games play with this. In the original Megami Tensei I and II, magic offense, defense and MP were all determined by the Intellect stat, though with Shin Megami Tensei Intellect was split into two stats - Intelligence, which increased the effectiveness of status ailment inducing/instant-kill magic such as Marin Karin and greatly increased MP, and Magic, which corresponded more to a character's sixth sense and made offensive magic more efficient. Later games abandoned Intelligence, though the Magic stat still has some correlation with the character's mind.

    Western Animation 
  • Unicorn magic is shown to work this way in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic due to mage-in-training Twilight Sparkle being The Smart Girl among the Mane Six. In "Feeling Pinkie Keen", Twilight mentions while practicing with Spike that spell-casting requires complete focus and concentration. It's shown again in "Magic Duel", where Twilight is trained by Zecora to better her magic, and her stray thoughts of Trixie cause her magic to fail.
  • Bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender is partially mental, which is shown by how the various benders meditate to improve their abilities. Unlike other examples, bending is also partly physical, since the bending arts require intense physical movements. However, some Master benders are able to perform elaborate acts with minor amounts of bodily movement. King Bumi is able to bend large amounts of rock with just his head, even when his body is bound by metal. Combustion Man, Yakone, and Amon are uniquely capable of bending just by thinking, something referred to a "psychic bending." It is a very rare skill.