MAGIC and the MIND



Like artists, we all seek to communicate clearly and in service of that ambition we whatever we know or have learned about the likely perceptual and cognitive mechanisms in our targets—those with whom we wish to communicate—much like a magician.   As DEEP ethologists we seek the developmental, ecological, and EVOLUTIONARY circumstances that are behind every transmission—but the PHYSIOLOGICAL circumstances, the proximate stimuli, are of the most immediate concern, and the masters of communications that surprise us—that violate our expectancies—are magicians—actual professional performing magicians.   Where innate skill, arduous training, and the love of evoking meaningful responses in others converge, the great magician is born.    Of course controlling the perceptions of others is not only the concern of entertainers: as we seek coherent stories to explain unfamiliar or unlikely—even miraculous—phenomena, the skill of magicians could persuade us they are personally in contact with transcendent forces.  Of course everyone is always trying to control others and the most persuasive means are through their own senses. Although appeals to “reason” are also deployed, the emotional component is paramount.   (see “Gorgeous Trumps Everything”)

There is abundant literature …  but a taste will suffice here and now: Read a review of The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mind by Matthew L. Tompkins    (in Science  14 Jun 2019:Vol. 364, Issue 6445, pp. 1038  DOI: 10.1126/science.aax8553 Article)



“Published to coincide with the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” The Spectacle of Illusion is a delightful and informative roller coaster that explores our fascination with magic, the paranormal, and the psychology of cognitive illusions. Author Matt Tompkins—who is both a psychologist and a magician—makes a detailed analysis of magicians and the responses they elicit in unsuspecting spectators, with some intriguing thoughts about magic, its close alignment with the paranormal, and psychologists’ enduring fascination with psychical research.

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, famously argued that the magician is not a performer of juggling tricks but an actor playing the role of someone with supernatural powers. The French use “magicien” to refer to the supernatural component and “prestidigateur” to describe a magician with nimble fingers. This distinction obfuscates the fact that what is perceived to be magic takes place not in the hands of the magician but in the mind of the spectator. James Randi astutely summarizes, “As a magician, I was able to see two things very clearly: a) how people can be fooled, and b) how they fooled themselves, and the second is far more important than the first.”

The Spectacle of Illusion is laid out in a series of acts that explore the transformation of magic from early mesmeric and spiritualist phenomena and master magicians to psychical research and parapsychological investigators. Although a short chapter, the book’s culmination—“Act five: The psychology of illusion”—is the highlight, providing a coherent analysis of how the mind is tricked when asked to see, to reason, and to remember. Here, Tompkins delves into all the attendant ramifications of cognitive roadblocks and biases and explores our propensity to believe in more than we perceive.

From a scientific perspective, both magic effects and other violations of expectancy activate comparable regions of the prefrontal cortex. As such, magic has the potential to explore the subjective experience of what we see, when we remember, and how we reason.

Magicians, we learn, discovered a number of key features of cognition long before they were studied by psychologists. Richard Hodgson and Samuel John Davey, for example, would not have considered themselves to be experimental psychologists, yet their 1887 paper “The Possibilities of malobservation and lapse of memory from a practical point of view” (1) described what later became known as the “reconstructive nature of memory” (2). Likewise, the “princess card trick”—first described by Thomas Nelson Downs in 1909 (3) and invented by magician Henry Hardin—relies on a cognitive blip, known as “change blindness,” in which spectators fail to detect changes to a scene when the changes are accompanied by visual disruption. This phenomenon was not examined in the psychology literature until 1997 (4).

Psychologists have also contributed to our understanding of magic. Here, Tompkins turns to the work of Alfred Binet on the psychology of prestidigitation, sometimes known as sleight of hand (5). Although best known for his work on IQ tests, in the paper to which Tompkins alludes, Binet demonstrates that photography can effectively destroy the psychological power of a magic effect by stripping away the artifice and other elements that create some cognitive illusions. For this reason, close-up magicians often request that audiences not film their performances.

The Spectacle of Illusion elegantly interweaves the expertise and perspectives of both psychologists and magicians to offer a powerful account of how metacognitive paradoxes work through illusions of omission and commission. There is still much to unpack about the nature of human cognitive processes but no reason to believe we won’t do so. As Tompkins writes, “No psychologist can claim that science has been able to fully describe how a human mind can construct conscious experience. But just because something must remain unexplained…does not mean it is unexplainable.”


References and Notes

1.       S. J. DaveyProc. Soc. Psych. Res. 4381 (1887).  Google Scholar

2.       F. C. BartlettRemembering a Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge Univ. Press1932).  Google Scholar

3.       T. Nelson DownsThe Art of Magic (Downs-Edwards1909).  Google Scholar

4.       R. A. Rensink et al., Psychol. Sci. 8368 (1997).  CrossRefWeb of ScienceGoogle Scholar

5.       A. BinetThe Psychology of Prestidigitation, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, USAM. Nichols, transl. (Smithsonian Institution1894).  Google Scholar



*Review by Clive Wilkins, Nicola S. Clayton (2019) Mind Tricks –review of The Spectacle of Illusion Matthew L. Tompkins D.A.P., 2019. 224 pp.   REVIEW  Science  14 Jun 2019:Vol. 364, Issue 6445, pp. 1038  DOI: 10.1126/science.aax8553 Article  Figures & Data  Info & Metrics  eLetters  PDF   

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.