Magic Moments

The Arts

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!



9 comments on “Magic Moments”

  1. Jan says:

    Stage magic perhaps owes a lot to Victorian ideas about spiritualism but there’s a different kind of magic that’s always been present running alongside the later popularization of stage conjuring.

    Consider the occupation of “scryer” a recognised occupation in the time of Elizabeth the 1st.
    Scryers enabled people to find things they had lost – a very different sort of magical thinking. Folk magic including herbalists, wise folk, in essence poor people’s medicine, have existed for centuries.

    I believe that the early ironworkers, blacksmiths working with metal they changed by heat into something liquid or semi liquid would have made people of that time believe that they the blacksmiths themselves possessed a “magical” power. Right up until the early Anglo Saxon era there seems to have been a strong connection between the creation of powerful swords( really by the creation of steel in small quantities and incorporating that metal into swords) that seemed to be closely connected closely to magic. The legend of the Sword in the Stone if you think about It in a different way is really about a “magical” sword being released from a cast. The swords the powerful weapons were believed to be magical in themselves.

    The Spanish armada was said to have been defeated in part by magic.

    Now whether there’s any sort of truth in magic I don’t know. Like many things magic comes down to faith and belief. Which really is a different aspect of The psychology of magic I suppose.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    And there is Dr. John Dee and his medium Edward Kelly, the language of angels, magic, maths and spying from Elizabethan times.

    Actually I like the way Penn & Teller show how tricks work and then just add a little bit to fool us some more. now you know how this works, but are you sure?

    As the old line says, ‘The quickness of the hand, deceives the eye,’ which isn’t true but sounds good.


  3. Ian Luck says:

    I think that magic is still popular simply because we, however skeptical we might be, like to think that there might be something more to it. There very well might be – having watched Derren Brown on many occasions, amongst the tropes that magic uses, there’s something else going on that we’re not a party to. Something quite dark, in fact. A stunt he pulled at a dog track, once, that could have resulted in people being sacked, and possible legal action, for example: taking some losing tickets to several different cashiers and convincing them that they were winning ones, and collecting quite a large amount of money – and then saying to the cashier: “Why did you give me this money? These are dead tickets”, and the horrified looks he was given spoke volumes. As he left the site, he quite sensibly said that he would not be returning any time soon. Humans like puzzles, and the solutions to them, and magic tricks are puzzles, sometimes of huge complexity, but with solutions that are very often simple and dull. We realise that, and are happy to be kept in the dark.

  4. snowy says:

    Tempting as it is to go into a big boring overlong burble covering: magic, the definition of the word ‘occult’, metalurgy, Gallenic medicine and the strange antics in 1940 of a coven to to ward off Operation Sealion.

    I’m going to teach you all a simple magic trick.

    You will need 2 paperclips and a low denomination note, [or a till receipt, compliments slip etc.]
    [Directions for Right-Handers, those of Sinister preferences should adjust as required.]

    With the note facing you and the long side horizontal, hold the top corners between thumb and finger, thumbs on top.

    Move your Right hand about 1″ closer to your body and then move it across your body towards your Left hand, so that the note overlaps itself twice.

    The note will fold into a concertina that looks a bit like the figure ‘2’.

    Gently hold the note in this shape with your Left hand.

    Clip the top of the ‘2’ to the loop it touches.

    Clip the bottom of the ‘2’ to the loop it touches.

    [It doesn’t matter which way round you put the paperclips.]

    Set-up complete, grip the note by the top corners and firmly pull it straight, the paperclips will jump of and when they land you will discover that they are now ‘magically’ linked together.

    [Proper show-offs will attempt to catch the clips on the note by tipping it flat, the rest of us just pick them up off the table, floor, out of the potted palm, behind the cat basket etc.]

  5. admin says:

    I just tried that, Snowy, and ended up with one paperclip in my tea.
    One of those books, the stage illusions one, is Victorian and half of its trick require access to chemicals I’ve never heard of.
    No wonder they kept poisoning each other!

  6. Jan says:

    This morning I watched David Blaine on Breakfast tv with Lorraine Kelly doing some really very clever card tricks. Reminded me of the old three card trick merchants who used to work Oxford street the good ones were really skillfull.

    Brought back to mind when I still lived and worked in the capital being on the SOUTH bank, think when I must have been working down there, and watching poor old David Blaine suspended in that glass box for weeks. The ever sympathetic London audience waved hamburgers, fish and chip takeaways and as many other different sorts of grub at him as you could possibly imagine. Not his best decision perhaps to perform that particular stunt in the UK!

  7. snowy says:

    Somebody is apparently not following the instructions closely. Jerking too hard will always result in things shooting off a bit prematurely. A smooth but firm motion is what is required to get the mating portions together before the moment of release.

    Victorian chemical names are very strange, usually some form of horribly mangled Latin*. A look in a Pharmacopoeia of the period may help decipher any of particular interest. Expect lots of Gum Arabic, a pair of decidedly nasty compounds to turn ‘water’ into ‘wine’ and just about everything that can be made to ignite. [The chemicals would all have been brought from a ‘chemist and druggists’ shop over the counter.]

    The actual ‘sleight of hand’ in the ‘Three Card Trick’ is a beautifully simple thing, it’s the ‘sell’ that really counts. It is very entertaining to watch, but never play because you will never win, [and watch your purse/wallet/phone].

    I suspect that London was chosen primarily due to the comparative lack of people who have access to assault rifles and rocket launchers. [But there is a certain pleasing irony in pelting an American show-off with another American import; namely fried mince ‘inna-bun’.]

    [*I have spent hours trying to decode a faint and crabbed medical record, consulted a dozen books to try to discover what had been prescribed for somebody who spent time as a prisoner and hence their chief medical complaint, only for it to finally turn out to be a teacup full of boiled linseed slapped on under a dressing, [boil on bum]. I suspect the particular individuals disappointment in their treatment was as keen as mine because everybody else reporting sick that day got pleasantly whacked off their heads on a dose of Opium.]

  8. Henry says:

    Hoping Davenport’s might feature in the book! Such a lovely shop and in theory situated in a great spot… Yet the truth is nobody really goes down into that particular part of Charing Cross any more except drunks and the homeless. Still hope it can survive a bit longer!

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I was racking my brains trying to think of where I knew the jumping paperclip trick from. Then it struck me: it’s in the 1969 ‘Joe 90 Top Secret’ annual, along with another trick/experiment called ‘electrosparks’. That, if memory serves, requires two tin lids, and a stick of sealing wax. Just the items that every home today has.

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