Magic is having a bit of a moment. A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on London’s Euston Road is called ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’, and looks into the neural connections between the mind and the wand. Why do magic tricks, many of which hinge on a ludicrously simple premise, still fool people in an age of technology?
Most people don’t want to know how tricks are done because the answer is disappointing; the curtain is lifted aside to reveal something rather tacky and threadbare. The interesting part lies between the trick, the eyes and the brain. We can’t believe what we see. We only think the moon is big when it’s low because pictorial cues that look far away are set against the moon in the same way that the Ebbinghaus Illusion works. Our eyes are weaker than a cheap phone camera, working at about 1 megapixel per eye, and our brains fill in the rest from our patchy memories.
We also have problems with logic. Our brains tell us that a ball can’t vanish into thin air. We know that a ball is round and hard to hide. We remember its weight and solidity. But what if the ball is not a ball but a sponge, or a half-shell? It goes against our understanding of what a ball is, and therefore we’re tricked when it’s spirited away.
The ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ exhibition shows how much magic grew from the Victorian interest in spiritualism, which was in turn born from the grief of losing children to illness and men to war. The new high-tech magic involves phone technology and neurolinguistic programming, but is still indebted to trickery. One video shows just how easy it is to persuade a stranger to change their mind because magic is about hacking the brain via its cognitive gaps.
‘Slights of Mind’ and ‘Experiencing the Impossible’ are new books that both look at the mistakes the brain makes. We incorrectly perceive depth, we misremember, we simply fail to notice something right in front of us. In 1770, when Wolfgang Von Kempelen built the Mechanical Turk, a clockwork automaton that beat opponents at chess, he fooled the world. But how? Logic should have told us it was impossible; computers hadn’t been invented. The chess moves had to be played by a flesh and blood player, yet we chose to think of this as an early robot. Of course there was someone hidden inside the mechanism, but we chose every other far-fetched answer before the most obvious one.
Derren Brown is the modern-day master of fooling the brain. His disturbing show ‘The Push’ showed how you could trick a man into committing murder.
And that, I think, is all you need to know about what I’m researching for Bryant & May at the moment!