# Why are they so good at magic?

Magic, humans are not good at magic, actually they need thousands of hours of ACTIVE studying.

A person needs to to put full mental effort and energy into magic studies for 1500 hours on average just to learn simple spells like lighting a fire. And those are not just a 1500 hours of repeated practice like a brainless zombie; 1500 hours of putting your brain through hard puzzles.

The difference between a 1500 hours of reading fantasy books and a 1500 hours of studying music, one is passive and relaxing, so relaxing people use it to fall asleep and the other requires full mental concentration.

That's magic for people, hard work. But Merfolk are naturally good at magic, actually they are born already knowing how to use it.

Is there any parallel in real life with things animals can do since birth but humans can learn with years of studying? If not why are some species born good at magic while others need to learn it?

• Why are some people naturally good at music, while others can put in many hours of practice without becoming more than minimally competent? Jan 26 at 18:02
• @jamesqf they aren't. "Naturally good" just means you started your 1500 hours at a young age. Jan 26 at 20:07
• I hear that humans are unusually good at throwing things. Jan 26 at 20:07
• @user253751: That's simply not true. Plenty of people have put in many hours of practice at young ages without becoming good at music (been there, done that :-(); others are good at similar ages without much practice. Jan 26 at 22:02
• @user253751 starting music at a young age - that's just not true, and/or currently highly unknown, and/or one of the most highly debated topics in brain science/psychology etc. Jan 27 at 18:37

Is there any parallel in real life with things animals can do since birth but humans can learn with years of studying? If not why are some species born good at magic while others need to learn it?

Echolocation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_echolocation

Some blind people learn echolocation via mouth-clicks or cane-tapping as a replacement for their visual sense. However it must be very hard to learn this skill because most seeing people don't even bother to learn it. Dolphins or bats on the other hand have sensory organs which are way more adapted to this method of orientation - and just use them by instinct.

Third Eye

In a similar way to a cetacean's Melon, your merfolk could have evolved a special organ of perception adapted to sense and maybe even manipulate the 'magic field'. Humans need to find a workaround with their 5 senses which needs to be trained consciously and with dedication.

• Nice! As an added bonus, skills are much easier to learn if you can see what you are doing (feedback).
– Aron
Jan 27 at 1:53
• Yup, Humans are basically born 'blind to magic'. Which doesn't mean that they are completely unable to take part in the magic world - they will just have a much harder time than the 'seeing ones'. Jan 27 at 11:50

Is there any parallel in real life with things animals can do since birth but humans can learn with years of studying?

Humans take about a year to start walking, a bit more to run. And even that takes years to be mastered at a decent level.

Grazer offsprings (buffalo, giraffe, antelope just to name a few) can follow their mother shortly after they are born.

• For a more apt example, I'd suggest the ability to walk. A baby horse(most animals) are able to walk within minutes, while a human takes about a year. Jan 26 at 9:55
• @Viktrian-OceansBleed You should know that humans are adapted to do the exact opposite of cheetahs; That is, instead of very fast short sprints we can do slower very, very, long marathons. Jan 26 at 18:51
• @Viktrian-OceansBleed What about the girl who learned to run on all fours? Jan 26 at 20:31
• @MichaelMortensen That's not about learning though, that's about being physiologically incapable. Human babies are essentially born about 9 months premature, enforced by the evolutionary trade-off of human females being able to stand upright but having a much smaller birth canal. Much of a human baby's first year of life is development which happens in the womb in other mammals. Jan 26 at 21:42
• @Graham It's too bad we didn't evolve from marsupials! Jan 28 at 9:43

Humans have "dysmagia"

If we take a look at the learning abilities of humans, we see a host of different abilities. In particular, if we look at reading, there's a fair number of people who can learn to read relatively easily. But there's a subset of people who have an exceedingly difficult time with it. We say that (a certain subset of) these people have "dyslexia".

Our current best understanding of dyslexia is that it's something about the brain wiring. There's something slightly different about the brains of those with dyslexia such that simple tasks that form the basis of reading (e.g. recognizing letters and keeping them in order) are just hard. It's not that people with dyslexia aren't trying to learn to read, it's that their brains just won't cooperate.

That's not to say that a person with even severe dyslexia can't learn to read, it's just going to be much, much harder for them than for someone without dyslexia. It will take them a bunch of effort and committed practice.

A similar sort of thing could be happening with magic in your world. Humans, as a species, have "dysmagia". Their brains just aren't wired right for some of the very basic tasks which are needed to cast magic. Human magicians can overcome this limitation with a bunch of effort, but it takes much more effort than someone from a species which has a brain better wired for the task.

The exact reason for the brain wiring difference could even be something that's unspecified. (That would be my initial inclination - your human readers can't understand magic well enough to even realize they can't understand slood.) But if you're looking for something in particular, understanding the "flow" of magic may be a good one to separate merfolk from humans. Merfolk are born with an intuitive understanding of fluid dynamics and chaotic flow, due to their evolutionary history in the water. But for humans even the grossly simplified Navier–Stokes equations is a high-level concept. As such, humans can't really ever get the same understanding of chaotic magic flow that even a baby merperson has an intuitive understanding of.

Note there's a similar issue with humans being able to "cheat" advanced calculations. Attempting to catch a ball from first principles (analogous to using the Navier–Stokes equations for fluid dynamics) is exceedingly difficult and an exercise in advanced differential equations. However, the human brain has various "shortcuts", such that even a small child can toss a ball back and forth, and young children can predict the trajectory of a ball thrown over a long distance. A professional ball player doesn't do calculations, they just "know" where the ball will end up. One could say that something similar happens with merfolk and magic - they just "know" how the magic would end up, whereas humans have to learn how to (quickly) do the calculations.

• Unrelated, but I don't think I've ever read a book about a magically-dyslexic wizard, and what would happen if you think about your magical goals "slightly wrong". That could potentially be very interesting. The closest was probably Harry Dresden's conjuritis (randomly sneezes and conjures objects around him). Jan 27 at 19:22
• This may not be the best answer, but it is my favorite, in part because it carries interesting parallels at the far ends of the bell curve - humans that are dysmagical even for humans (basically incapable of magic regardless of effort), and humans who do have a natural knack. The latter is paralleled in both hyperlexia (talent without understanding) and the precocious acquisition of reading by "profoundly gifted" children - and both are potentially ripe for in-story exploration. Jan 28 at 4:31
• No offense intended by "not the best." You got my upvote. :) Jan 28 at 4:32

Yes, there are some real-world analogs; just look at the other answers.

As for why some species would naturally be born good at magic, that's simple. Humans aren't generally creatures of magic, as they are depicted in most fantasy works. The ability to use magic is either innate, dormant, or must be gained by some interaction with a magical creature.

However, merfolk as they are generally depicted are obviously beings of magic, or else chimeras made for who-knows-what reason. I would say this is actually a very good set up for your story; I had a similar idea, that can be summed up as: Humans need to put in more work to use magic, but are more versatile, while magical creatures have innate but limited magical "talent."

In other words, merfolk would have an innate gift for magic, but not just any magic; we're talking water magic here, perhaps mesmerization (mind-control?) and illusion magic as well (for sirens). However, humans can use any kind of magic, and quickly adapt their spells and rituals to fit their needs, making them much more versatile.

This goes perfectly with your premise, actually; animals have an innate physical superiority, due to instincts and physiology, but we have an intellectual superiority; it's harder to learn and use your head, but when we do, we are quite literally the most dangerous species on the planet.

In this case, the only difference is that magical versatility, not necessarily intelligence, is the danger to other species.

• +1 for more versatile with work vs naturals with limits. My first thought. If it takes 20 years to learn but I can level mountains... and merfolk can level rock piles at birth but not go beyond that... Jan 26 at 21:46
• Exactly! Humans have to put greater work, but the rewards in turn are greater! Jan 26 at 22:18
• I don't think anyone is arguing talent does not exist, the author is as for justification for why merfolk in particular have a talent for magic.
– John
Jan 29 at 16:47
• I have that in there; merfolk are creatures of magic, therefore, they have a talent for magic. It is no more strange than birds being good at flying, or moles being good at digging; it's in the design. Jan 29 at 17:45

Is there any parallel in real life with things animals can do since birth but humans can learn with years of studying?

When I was taking karate, I realized that some of the techniques I was actively exerting effort to learn are things that my pet kitten did instinctively. In particular, the technique of keeping your muscles relaxed through most of a punch and tensing at the absolute last moment, which gives you more power because your muscles aren't slowing your momentum. Cats do this from a young age while swatting objects. I observed it in a newly-adopted three month old kitten, the developmental equivalent of about a 4-5 year old human.

• What do toddlers do? It's possible that instead of not ever doing it instinctvely, you just unlearned it due to living in an urban environment. Like proper posture, diaphragmatic breathing, and proper deadlift form. Jan 26 at 18:56
• @DKNguyen Toddlers just flail wildly at whatever they want to hit, with no coordinated regulation of force. Jan 27 at 2:13

Let me take a moment to talk about how to "evolve" an innate skill. I make no promises that this explanation is scientifically accurate.

1. A learnable skill provides some survival advantage. For simplicity, I'll ignore societal evolution and focus only on genetic survival (i.e., having the skill increases the likelihood of breeding).
2. Over time, learning the skill "faster" or "better" will provide an advantage. So, people will evolve to learn the skill "faster" or "better." Similarly, people will evolve the ability to teach/understand the skill "faster" or "better."
3. Eventually, learning the skill "faster/better" means being able to learn it faster and with less outside help. This is especially true if outside help is minimal or non-existent.
4. As the time/assistance required to learn the skill approaches zero, the skill becomes innate.

So, the question then becomes: Under what circumstances would there be sufficient selection pressure for this to happen in the case of magic?

• The species evolved the need for magic before evolving intelligence/language. Hence, the selection benefit for efficiently learning magic was higher.
• The species is magical in nature. Thus, mastery of magic creates more viable off-spring.
• The species uses magic as their primary means of defense/offense.
• As a side effect of all of the above, those with strong magical skill are more attractive as potential mates.

How can this be compared to other species having special skills?
I've seen a lot of focus on tool use as a substantial evolutionary advantage. In some sense, learning to master your environment and to use tools provides a massive advantage. So, I would imagine that a magic-oriented species would view "ability to use magic to solve problems" as a strong measure of intelligence, much in the way humans view tool-use now. This has an interesting (but over-used) impact:

• Tech-based societies consider magic useful, but look down on societies that don't understand tech. If magic and tools can both solve a problem, tools are preferred (more predictable, can be used by anyone).
• Magic-based societies consider tools useful, but look down on societies that don't understand magic. If magic and tools can both solve a problem, magic is preferred (less reliance on resources that might not be available. More flexible).

How does this translate into real-world analogues?

We can look at other species trying to use tools and notice they either can't do it or are worse at it (i.e., a crow using a stick isn't as impressive as a human using a phone). The magical species will look at humans in the same way.

## Merfolk don't have fire

One easy way to justify it, merfolk have been using magic as long as humans have been using fire, and they have evolved to be better at magic just as humans have evolved to be better at eating cooked food. Or how the human hand and wrist evolved to be better at flint knapping. The difference is even justifiable, since merfolk can't use fire a lot of the their technology must be based on magic. perhaps early merfolk use magic to cook food or make tools. merfolk are better because they have been using it a LOT longer and have evolved to use magic better while humans may have only recently stumbled on it and evolution has not had time to catch up.

• I can't believe this is the only answer to mention fire, because that seems key here. The control of fire was a crucial turning point in the technological evolution of human beings. Civilization would be hard to imagine without it. But an underwater civilization by its nature can't have fire — so there's got to be something else. Jan 29 at 15:40

Is there any parallel in real life with things animals can do since birth but humans can learn with years of studying?

Magic could be like singing. A minority of people are naturals at it, but most people need to learn from someone else how to properly sing.

Singing birds, however, are all pitch perfect. Some species of parrots and related birds can learn songs and sing or whistle them with perfection after hearing them a few times. I specially love watching videos of cockatiels whistling songs from Final Fantasy and Darth Vader's theme. I can't whistle to save my life. Also my family says that if I were ever to sing at the church choir they would quit religion.

If not why are some species born good at magic while others need to learn it?

Enhanced (or non-human) senses.

Both vultures and humans can glide on air currents (though the human needs to be piloting a glider or a parasail). In order to go up, you need to go into a rising mass of air (usually a thermal). We humans suck at finding those - it's possible to have an idea where some might be, but that's it, just an idea. Vultures, however, just know where they are. They're so good at it that professional gliders will sometimes simply follow the vultures.

With magic it could be the same thing. You need to align your mana flow with the natural ley lines in order to cast properly. Merfolk have a sense that allows them to perceive where the ley lines are, so they always get spells right the first time. Humans depend on trial and error, maps, instruments or a helping hand from merfolk in order to properly cast a spell.

Hold your breath for magic

It's kind of open-ended to ask what animals can do that humans have to learn. Everything from fish catching other fish in the water, to a giraffe walking on days one and two.

But you want it to be more closely related to magic and ~150 school days of critical skill learning and development, or let's say roughly one year of magic-University (1200hrs at 8hrs/day). And you need it to be something a human can learn. I really liked the echolocation example, but a year of University doesn't change biology.

Your mer-people are born able to breathe underwater with no practice, but some say it takes a month for a healthy human to be able to hold their breath for five minutes.

Similarly as your mer-folks are able to breathe underwater, it also opens their minds after a few minutes of holding breath to begin executing magic. They're born with it, humans have to practice and learn it. Extend it to a years' worth of intensive study of the magic plus the physical exercise of being able to adapt to holding your breath, and you have a magic-practicing human.

Anything in parallel? Heck, yes!

Birds can fly without study and with very little practice, once their feathers have developed. It's instinctive!

Similarly, fish can swim automatically as soon as they're hatched/born.

Maybe there's a song in this:

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly
Merfolk make magic; they don't have to try
Can't stop makin' that magic of mine!


(Yeah, I know - keep my day job... :-)

• Plenty of mammals can learn to swim pretty much immediately upon exposure to water, so long as they are old enough to physically do so. This is common for animals which historically supplemented their diet with fish (e.g., ferrets, some cat breeds). Jan 28 at 17:27

The main difference between Merfolk and Humans is that Merfolk have developed a trait that allows them to pass on their knowledge vertically to their children during whatever "pregnancy" they go through. Think about it, children actually study "by proxy", in the womb, their brains inherit the structural traits of their parents' brains, or even acquire new traits that their parents have learnt that far. Thus, they are born knowledgeable!

This way, you don't really have to change much more about how the rest of how nature works. It would still take time, but this would be gestation time, which is already there. 1500 hours is 62.5 days, about two months, which wouldn't be that much for a gestation period by real-life metrics.

R.M. pretty much covers it and Nephas gives two great examples.

There are things you can learn, and things you cannot learn. It all comes down to the available equipment and how well you can use it. Learning, in most animals you are familiar with, is a function of the CNS. In very simple terms, there's neurons, lots of them...those are your guys. They can get excited or inhibited and, in doing so, they can affect other neurons with their behaviors.

Let's make this very simple. Think of neurons as individuals you are trying to synchronize in some way. Let's assume they you are trying to have them sing along to the same clear cut frequencies, i.e. synchronize them in terms of pitch, or sing in unison. They will definitely need to work through a few dozens of problems:

a) Some of them will not know how to increase or decrease the pitch. You will have to teach them. They will produce random sounds and you will mark them on a grading scale from low to high, so that they, at least, understand the ordering. You don't expect them to know in advance what an A or a B note means. You have to let them randomly produce pitched notes and teach them, for example, that "this sound you just made is quite close to a B", or "that one is in between a C and a D, lower this a bit and you're C".

b) Some of them will not be able to hear themselves, they will be deaf. You will have to find a way to teach them that a higher pressure (sort of) in the area of their airways means a higher pitch. Then you will need to calibrate them, i.e. teach them that a specific magnitude of pressure corresponds to the note you want to achieve. This is tougher because their self-feedback will be coarser. They will need to "map" a narrow range of roughly and empirically quantifiable pressure magnitudes to some symbols indicating they are right. And then they will have to do this backwards, to sing, i.e. reproduce the pressures based on the symbols. Most of them will be hitting the notes as, e.g., C ± a "few" Hz (that is, if you're lucky).

c) Some of them will have a "resolution" problem. Usually, people can distinguish pitches that differ by as little as 3.6 Hz in between 1-2kHz. Some of your people are going to do worse, they will jump in steps of 10s, or 100s of Hz. They may learn to fine-grain their control but it will take time, so now you will have to make do with some "weak links" of, again, a C ± some tens or 100s of Hz, which may, or may not be important. A middle C is at 261.63 Hz and one octave above is double that value. You certainly don't want someone able to jump in steps of 80Hz in their sounds, or you'll only get ~3 scrambled notes in that octave.

d) Some of them will not understand you, because you don't speak the same language. You will need to do something special with them, you will probably need to show them the symbols, let them start raising their pitch, and have someone actively touch them to stop the raising when they hit the right note.

e) Some of those people (even many), will generally be impossible to work with, so you will need to send them off to do something else.

f) ... various other problems...

This would be "systematic" learning, and it takes a lot of time until you can produce a tolerable choir out of that many people. For some things that you need to learn, there is simply no shortcut. You need to learn how to recognize lots of symbols, match them to meanings, symbol combinations, operations, then meanings again, then how meaning combinations give you other meanings... think mathematics, physics, etc, you can't just dive directly into integrals or particle physics and expect to learn anything. But, like the people you are trying to orchestrate in the example above, your neurons may be better suited to those tasks. You may have fewer noncompliant neurons, lots of responsive neurons, more high-resolution neurons, etc.. Neuron capabilities are like your inner "vocabulary" and think about how it would be if you had a 25-letter language. It wouldn't make your life totally miserable, but you certainly would miss on lots of words, let alone some letters might switch off more important words from your vocabulary than other letters.

Now, here comes the newsflash... for the most part, that's not how the brain learns (but at least, it gets someone to appreciate a high-level approach to learning). You don't really have access to neurons and you certainly don't control them at the microscopic scale. What does happen is this:

1. Some areas specialized in expressing intentions or reflexes initiate a rough signaling cascade.

2. The cascade travels through various neuron groups, being processed along the way (i.e. some stop firing, others fire harder, others inhibit their senders, others cease transmission, etc.).

3. The overall signal cascade has some terminal effect, external (action) or internal (introspection). A return signal, along with certain adaptations begins to unfold "backwards" based on the terminal effect. Some neurons will increase their transmission threshold, they will require more excitation to fire. Some neurons will begin to filter their response, e.g. by ceasing transmission when signaled by some specific senders, but not by others, or even magnifying the signal when signaled by specific ones.

4. This whole filtering goes back and forth until some sort of balance is achieved, which has a terminal effect that is precisely the one you like to have, based on the applied necessity (of course).

Doesn't make sense? Let's go back to your individuals! Blow systematic learning. You will learn in chaos! Start producing a note and have them all do the same and produce a note, any note. Tell them to try to mimic your note. Because of how (healthy) ears work, an observer can easily tell that they are actually listening to two different tunes, if you are not in unison. Consonance is a quality that can be "felt" and matching the tunes in terms of pitch can be further self-guided by exploiting the fact that dissonance is easily perceived, but also, as tunes approach each other in terms of pitch, because of various phenomena, such as interference beats, you can use the "annoyance" feedback to tune up or down, to eliminate those and achieve a single uniform auditory effect.

In short, because of being able to compare the produced result to the desired result (or, more usually, to the undesired results) and fine-tune it accordingly, it is possible to iteratively approach the desired result, and this is, in a sense, the actual way that the brain learns. Thus, broken down, learning actually requires the following capabilities:

• Intention to produce an effect.
• One (or more) effector mechanism(s) to produce an effect.
• Ability to quantitatively or qualitatively compare the effect to the desired effect (assessment).
• Ability to make small adjustments to the produced effect by adjusting utilization patterns of the mechanism, in a way that can be used to "steer" the utilization patterns in order to produce the desired effect.

You can apply this looping pattern to pretty much anything you learn. Lack of any of those mechanisms means you cannot learn. As an example of this, think about learning how to write with a mechanical pencil.

You need to hold the pencil and apply a very specific force in a very specific order of directions, timely synchronized, so as to appropriately overcome the friction between the tip and the writing surface, only by just as much as necessary, so that you can sustain a given progression of "rolling" speeds of the pencil tip, which would produce the desired scriptures (let alone you need to know the actual shapes you are trying to scribble). In the process, you need to refrain from applying excessive force, to avoid breaking the tip. Imagine, for a moment, how many parameters you are dealing with:

• Holding the pencil is of utmost importance. Even tiny changes in angle between the tip and the writing surface will affect the produced friction and you will need to readapt the forces you are using to drag the pencil. Holding the pencil at a different height will also change the force you need to apply at the anchor point, in order to produce a given force at the tip, because of the effect of the lever arm on the torque. The desired force at the tip is practically constant for a given writing surface, but holding the pen a couple mm lower might make you break the tip (because of the increased force at the separating surface).

• The "threshold" of breaking is very delicate and the margins of usage too small. Also, different surfaces have different friction coefficients, so those delicate margins might make you break the tip while "readapting" to a different surface. You need to be able to adjust your applied force with a very high resolution, having the ability to increase/decrease it at will in very small intervals/jumps, certainly far lower than the total applicable range (between the minimum force needed to only just about "roll" the tip, and the minimum force that would break the tip).

• You also need to avoid tip retraction, so the vertical component of the applied force is also something you need to watch out for and has equally small effective range and usage margins.

• The utilization mechanism, the "effector", in a sense, is the coordinated movement of your muscles. You don't really know the complex vectors of the forces your muscles are applying, you only know the net force and, even this, is not one, but multiple, applied at the various locations of touch with the mechanical pencil, as you are not only touching it at a single point. You need to learn how to coordinate your muscles to apply very specific forces in very specific directions, which will sum up to a very specific set of forces in the contact points. This problem can readily be compared to a subset sum problem, or the generalized knapsack problem. The only thing you need to know about those is that they are notoriously infeasible when the input is large and so is the coordination of the so-many muscles of your hand and fingers, and the degrees of freedom that their combination brings into play.

The process itself can be decomposed into the signals between the neurons in your brain, firing in an orchestrated manner, so that specific forces can be produced (and continuously readapted in real-time), which will provide the very specific effect. For this, the neurons need to learn just how much to fire (and this includes a whole other world of parameters involved) but, in general, because of the sheer number of neurons, the number of potential "firing" combinations (i.e. ways to "orchestrate") is unimaginably enormous. When you get some of the (admittedly very few) ways of "proper" writing, which please you, you can repeat them, so that the specific "orchestration" is reinforced, while the wrong ones are "weakened".

As you have probably guessed, thus, learning how to write is, in effect the process of learning millions, if not billions, of ways of how not to write, until the way you write finally approximates something that pleases you (or your teachers!). The time you need to explore all possible "orchestrations" is, of course, going to be large, but also, highly dependent on the built-in qualities of the neuron networks.

You can also consider the example of 2-point orientation discrimination (2POD). The minimum discernible distance of two points apart, touching your skin generally depends on the location. The reason for this is multifactorial but, in simple terms, is related to the "equipment", i.e. how many nerve endings are on the area of the skin, what types of cells, and, of course, how much volume of the brain is dedicated to it, as well as to how well-prepared it is to handle that.

Therefore, to answer your question, how easy it is to learn something actually depends on how complicated it is (i.e. how many parameters are at play), how effectively you can employ your learning loop and, of course, how strong and well-prepared your "infrastructure" is. If you actually "degrade" some parts of the brain, you may lose some important functions (e.g. prosopagnosia). If you connect areas together, which were not connected before, you can create new (sometimes rather funky, even mystical) functions, such as synesthesia.

Taking all of the aforementioned into account, you can easily look for sensory strengths of other animals. The usual comparison would be olfaction, as sensed by, for example, scent hounds. Learning to sense, identify and distinguish smells is easier for them, because they have much more suitable infrastructure for this specific function.

Finally, you could always make the notorious comparison of a computer to a form of "life". One that you can "program", so that it learns to do exactly what you teach it, doesn't ever forget, and is capable of learning tremendous amounts of instructions over a few seconds to minutes (think copying files, installing applications, etc.). Do not forget Clarke's 3rd law, too!

• I don't think anyone is arguing talent does not exist, the author is as for justification for why merfolk in particular have a talent for magic.
– John
Jan 29 at 16:45