Friday, July 29, 2005


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Today, the BBC has an article about the psychology of magic. Understanding this is important if one wants to understand how the real world works and why people are so easy to fool.

From the BBC:
Magicians have been using a clever mix of dexterity and deception for centuries to astound and captivate their audiences.

But how do they fool people who know they are going to be duped?

Well, cutting edge-psychology is now being applied to this most ancient of entertainment forms, to understand how these masters of legerdemain trick the complexities of the human brain.

The techniques involved have been discussed this week at the Science Museum's Dana Centre, being held to mark the centenary of the Magic Circle.
In America, I have attended magician conventions. I used to build things for some of them in New Jersey. One of my children was once a stage magician who was very good at it.

Her teacher loved her ability to take in people because she looked utterly innocent as she manipulated magic boxes and her trained dove, Sava, and she was very good with the magic rings. She could manipulate the adult sized rings with her small hands.

She would do this close up. Sceptical adults would be allowed to "examine" the rings within inches of their noses if they long as she held the rings! Turning them round and round while carefully putting first one hand then the other over the critical joints took skill. She fooled everyone.

Even people sitting within ten feet of the magic box couldn't detect how we did the tricks. Everyone knows they are tricks by when you ask them how they know, they can't explain. They just know. Builders and performers of tricks know very well how it all works and we use not only misdirection but black velvet and mirrors and odd hinges and springs to make things move in concealed ways.

A side story: at one convention, a man was lecturing about making balloon animals for parties. My very young son was sitting next to me on the first row. He was the only tot there. "Ask for an animal," said the lecturer. "I can make any animal!" So my son clapped his hands with joy and said, "I want a kangaroo!"

The magician gave him a dirty look. "I can't make that," he said. All the magicians in the audience roared with laughter.

Magicians can actually be a lot of fun. Most if not all are extremely intelligent and hard working. The sense of wonder and a child-like joy in creating a secret world runs strongly in this community. Tradition matters a great deal, too. All magicians know they stand on the shoulders of all previous masters of the dark art.
"The really good performers," he said, "the ones who know what they're doing, have an incredible grasp of psychology", and use it to convince you to see their version of events.
My daughter taught one of the Cosby Show kids how to do some simple magic tricks which were used on TV in one of the episodes. These rope and card tricks were developed for close work with the observer sitting inches away. Elegant yet simple. Tying ropes in knots that aren't really knots is very ancient yet fools the eye (except maybe Eagle scouts!) with amazing ease.
Many of their mind tricks of the trade are surprisingly simple and boil down to misdirection - of gaze, attention, suspicion or even memory.

Body language is key. An audience can be misled about the location of an object by tensing or relaxing hands to make them look full or empty.

Another important social cue is direction of gaze and head movement. If a performer looks in a particular direction, the natural reaction is to follow, giving him a brief window to make his move.

It is vital that when the audience realises they have been had, they cannot properly recall the fine details in the series of events which led up to the effect, and so deconstruct it.

"For example," said Professor Wiseman, "a magician might cut some cards and say 'Right, they're mixed up now'. Then he'll do something else and then say 'Now, remember I shuffled the cards at the start'.

"That word - 'shuffled' - has gone in, and people think 'Yeah, that's right, the cards were shuffled'. But they weren't, he just cut them. It's cut to mix to shuffle. Small steps. If you had gone from cut to shuffle, it's too much and people notice."

And magicians are not the only ones playing tricks; your mind is at it, too.

"People think the way their perception works is simple," said University College London neuroscientist Geraint Rees. "They think it's like having a viewing room inside their brain with a little man sitting there monitoring a big bank of video feeds from outside, but it's not so straight forward."
Many humans are astonishingly naive about the inner workings of the brain. Whenever I fix a house, inevitably, the homeowner will claim I broke or messed with something. I always take pictures before I start because of this. This isn't anyone trying to cheat me (except once and a while, alas) but because of how the brain works.

They get used to seeing the dents, scratches, cracks over the years and "edit" them out of their minds. When I fix whatever is broken, they look at it critically to see if the fix is OK and thus suddenly see what they managed to ignore, suddenly. I have learned that even innoculous actions like moving a vase or picture will cause problems because the homeowner will suddenly notice some defect and instantly blame me. I now make people move absolutely everything.

People are always suspicious of "strangers" or people changing things. So in order to make huge changes, the decievers have to first lull the audience via information flows. This is what magicians call "prattle" and what our media calls "pundits". I remember the Gore/Bush debates. Gore sighed three times while Bush slurped and snorted like a pig out of a poke. He annoyed me to death with his snuffling sounds.

The pundits immediately pounced on the three Gore sighs and talked for days about how rude and nasty he was. No one mentioned the Bush horrors. I was amazed and very annoyed. The immediate polls of people who actually watched the debates gave it overwhelmingly to Gore.

Three days later, it was given to Bush! Thanks to media magic.

People forget things as events flow so the magicians running our media will manipulate information, killing bad information and trumpetting good information. Before the internet, people were stuck either dragging out old newspapers which was nearly impossible or just giving up in the face of united manipulations of reality.

Now we have the net and it is still very hard! I could hardly find a trace of the Reagan speech in Japan that netted him a fortune, for example, and I tried a zillions different word combinations! This manipulation of reality is collapsing thanks to bloggers and the international interface of the internet. Things hidden totally at home like the number of soldiers being killed in Iraq, this information does show up in China or France so we can access it.
Harvard Scientists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris are keen students of what is called "inattention blindness".

They have a test which involves showing subjects a video of two basketball teams, one wearing white and the other black. Subjects are told to count the passes between the white team and most become so focused, they fail to notice a woman walk across the court with an umbrella.

"We have a limited processing capacity and can only perceive what we attend to," said UCL psychologist Dr Nilli Lavie.

"If the information we are paying attention to is taking all of our capacity, it doesn't leave capacity to perceive anything else."
This is very obvious in the media. They will focus on runaway brides or missing teens in Aruba and ignore important things. They do this deliberately and worse, the populace demands they do this because they want distractions, not knowledge. This is why we have magic show audiences. They know it is all an artifice but they still come and they want to be amazed but still feel smug. I would help magicians develop routines by sitting in the audience for them and noting the conversations and what the audience focused on and what they said afterwards when I asked "innocent" questions. We would go over this carefully and adjust the presentation accordingly.

The media does this! They "cover" for each other. When one of them slips up like Judith Miller, they all back the one thus exposed. They conspire with the real string pullers behind the scenes and then go back out into the audience to see if they can pull off another switcheroo.
Dr Lavie specialises in inattention blindness. "The skill of a good magician is to make a very interesting, dramatic act with complex actions and interesting verbal utterances," she said.

"He loads your attention with all this information, but it's irrelevant to the act that he presents. It is so you don't notice the deception."

However, humans being natural sceptics go to magic shows knowing they are going to be deceived so they pay special attention to everything. But being overly focused can also be turned to the illusionist's advantage.
Saying something is something is very important. I have proven this works in real life over and over. I once had to overwhelm a bigger man. I was wielding an artist's paint brush that happened to be dipped in red paint so I yelled, "This is a knife and I am going to stab you," and I struck him in the chest with it. He slapped his hand over the paint, looked and yelped, wailing, he ran down the street.

Magic strikes again.

I have found if I say, "This is (fill in the blank)" in a stern and commanding tone, people always take my word for it. This is what North Korea has done to us for several years. In the end, they got what they wanted. The USA suddenly discovered just yesterday that we are being manouvered into basically ending the Korean war which never had a peace treaty, you know. Technically, it is still ongoing. This isn't what "Axis of Evil" Bush wanted, you know. But using magic and patient work, the North Koreans are going to get what they wanted from day one.
Today, it is the edgier performers like Derren Brown and David Blaine that people want to see.

They are both charged with wresting magic back from the grip of the likes of David Copperfield, Paul Daniels and Lance Burton - the poster boys for high-camp family entertainment.

Yes, Blaine and Brown will astonish, but they will also unsettle; they take you on a journey to the parts of your childhood inhabited by the scary clown, not Peter Pan and the fairies.

In reality, their tricks are the same as those played out over generations. Blaine's genius was to strip out the outdated paraphernalia of corny catch-phrases, tuxedos and Vegas-scale stunts and work on the effect instead.

His TV show was successful because it was street magic with the safety catch off.
Every five years or so, a new magician starts his journey and always, always, it is "stripped down" and "in your face" because...he hasn't the money to do the big shows which they all, all of them, end up doing when they can. David Copperfield started out small and edgy. I remember him in the beginning!
He sprang his tricks on unsuspecting passers-by, and then lingered on their reaction, focussing more on their discomfort at what they had experienced than the trick itself.

Transporting modern cynical audiences back to a childlike state of wonder is a tall order even for these kings of cool. But Wiseman believes Derren Brown is doubly astute, using people's natural scepticism and demand for answers to his advantage.

"If he passed himself off as having psychic abilities, he wouldn't be half as successful," Professor Wiseman insists.
They all do that. No good magician "focuses on the trick" ---they focus on the audience. This used to be true of the media who used the Nielson ratings, for example, and other "scientific tools" to see if their magic was working. This is why they are in near hysteria right now. Their tricks are being uncovered and the light of day is shining into the mirror and black velvet lined magic box and this irritates and infuriates them. They seek ways of shutting us down and shutting us up.

As far as fake psychic abilities are concerned: if you want to be massively rich, convince people you are a real psychic! The desire to believe this is incredibly strong in humans. If you claim you can channel/revive the dead, this can bring tremendous power and indeed, nearly all the religions today are based on this very thing! This is the ultimate power. Pretending it isn't is...part of the magic tricks being pulled right in the middle of this article about tricks.

See? Just watch my hands. I am going to shuffle the deck of Tarot cards....

To return to homepage click here

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home