The art of Legilimency
Harry: “He can read minds?”
Snape: “You have no subtlety, Potter. Only muggles talk about ‘mind reading’.”
— “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”
Remember that time Harry asked if Legilimency was the same as reading minds and Snape basically called him an idiot? I kind of understand his frustration with Harry. When you read a book or watch a movie where people can ‘read minds’, you don’t dwell much on it. They can do it because they have superpowers or because of magic, end of the story. It’s fiction, why would you question it? But if you are like me, you’ll start thinking, wondering, considering what a person would have to do in order to be able to ‘read minds’ or perform Legilimency.
The way Snape explains it, implies that Legilimency is more complicated than normal ‘mind reading’. In movies, when superheroes ‘read minds’ they are usually only able to access the person’s immediate thoughts. A bit like listening to their current train of thought. However, a person who can perform Legilimency is able to access not only your immediate thoughts, but also deeper levels of your mind. Legilimens can take a look into your memories, the things you’ve memorized for a test, and even extract small details from the depths of your mind.
Up to now, you could consider Legilimency to be a more complex version of ‘mind reading’, why would Snape reject this idea so vehemently, then? Well, the concept of ‘mind reading’ starts sounding stupid in the moment you consider the way human minds work. I can’t talk for everyone, since I’m obviously not a Legilimens, but from conversations I’ve had with other people and my own experience I can say human minds are not only complex, they are chaotic. The way our minds work is a bit of a mystery, but it’s clear that they don’t resemble a book in any way. When you think (or at least when I do), you don’t always form complete sentences or even use words from a specific language, unless you are talking or writing. Coherence is also blatantly ignored. Thoughts in their most basic presentation are usually a combination of images, sounds, flavours, smells, memories and emotions with mingled words here and there. You switch between these formats and it all somehow makes sense to you. The connections in your mind are also quite complex. There are the normal ones between things you’ve learnt, memories and facts, but there’s also all of those curious connections between smells, external conditions, memories and dreams. That smell that reminds you of something you can’t quite grasp, or a moment in the day that makes you feel melancholic for unknown reasons are some examples. Your brain connects situations and things in your environment with certain reactions, feelings and ideas, all of them specific to you.
Does Snape’s frustration start to sound reasonable to you? Maybe? Okay, well, let’s talk about the words you use when you think. As I said, thoughts don’t always come in the form of words, so they would be incredibly hard to decipher once you got into someone’s head using magic or superpowers. But even if they were completely made out of words, they would still be hard to understand. Tell me, what language do you speak in your mind? From what I’ve gathered, ‘raw’ thoughts don’t follow a specific language. My first language is Spanish, but I only completely think in Spanish when I’m having a conversation or trying to write something down. Normally, the words in my thoughts are a mixture of what I’ve learnt from every language I’m more or less familiar with. And it makes sense, there are words that don’t exist in your first language, words which hold so much meaning they can’t be translated. Your mind it’s always making connections, so there’s nothing strange in connecting certain ideas to words in other languages and integrate them into your thoughts next to made up words and expressions you use in the circle of people you frequent. So even if thoughts were made out of words exclusively, they would be hard to understand for anyone apart from you.
Now consider again the idea of ‘reading’ someone’s train of thought. Trying to decipher ‘raw’ thoughts can’t possibly be easy and surely isn’t as simple as reading a book. In the case of normal ‘mind reading’, you could just assume superpowers or magic somehow help you decipher people’s immediate thoughts. Even when it’s not the same as reading a book and probably requires some work of you, it seems relatively easy once you get over the ‘deciphering’ part. Legilimency, on the other hand, sounds extremely hard even with supernatural help. It requires the wizard to interpret the mind they are entering, but since it goes into deeper layers of the human brain and it allows the wizard to retrieve specific things, it also requires the ability to search and find things in the chaos that is human mind. Imagine entering someone’s brain and searching for something in the chaos of sounds, images, emotions, etc. while trying to keep up the thousands of connections, most of which are meaningless to you. Somehow magic added to their huge mental power allows Legilimens to do that and even alter your mind if they wish so.
You don’t really give it much of a thought while reading the series, but it’s incredibly amazing how wizards like Voldemort can play with the mind when it is so unbelievably complicated. It gives you an idea as to why so few witches and wizards master this art. Have you ever considered Legilimency in this way? Do you also think in different languages at the same time? Am I the only one with a chaotic mind? Feel free to comment!
(The image above is called “Map of the Human Mind” by Peter Astrom. I imagine our minds a bit like that but in colour.)