In a paper that Ronald Chen and I wrote a few years ago (part of our “Illusion of Law” series), we summarized a few of the ways that “magic” happens and the key role played by “the way people think.” Here’s an excerpt from that paper (note: we are quoting Nathaniel Schiffman’s book, Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use To Deceive Their Audience (1997)).
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Explanations that are outside of our schemas – what we believe or what we want to believe about the things we see – will rarely be activated. It is often the case that we simply cannot fathom that the magician might be doing what he is doing:
. . . when Blackstone did his famous birdcage vanish (a cage with a live bird vanished from his bare hands) he would hold his arms outright in front of him, seemingly presenting the cage to the audience for their inspection. . . . The cage was specially designed to collapse on command. At the appropriate time, Blackstone would toss it forward, and the collapsed cage would be pulled up his sleeve – bird and all. Savvy adults watching the show might shake their heads and say, ‘Nah, it couldn’t go up his sleeve because he wouldn’t want to injure the bird.’. . .
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Actually, in many cases the bird was injured or killed.
Convinced that the magician would never rely on a method that might harm the bird, audience members were unable to see the trick. Their “knowledge” that the magician was not the type to harm a bird simply for the purposes a magic trick blinded them to what was the most obvious explanation for the illusion.
Our inability to see the magician as a particular type of person –- capable of, and willing to do, the unexpected in order to achieve magic –- is, like magic, no coincidence. Relying on our schemas, we make assumptions about the magician and her willingness to follow what we might consider to be the “unwritten rules” of magic. Audiences at a magic show
expect the magician to perform his magic in front of them, in full view, while misdirecting away from those certain actions that constitute the trick-to-the-trick. The audience probably doesn’t realize they are making those assumptions, because they have no reason to believe their assumptions are being broken. But very often a magic trick works because the magician has broken the unwritten rules of theatrical performing.
For psychics or “mentalists,” the unwritten rules include the following: first, the assumption “that the man on stage alone is performing the magic”; second, “that all the magic is done in ‘real time’ as the performance is happening”; and, third, “that the magic is done on stage.” The mentalist’s trick is often in breaking those rules – for example, having assistants eavesdrop on conversations in the audience; collecting juicy morsels of information prior to the time the show begins (and sometimes days before); relaying surreptitiously gathered information from off-stage. Doing unglamorous, tedious detective work prior to the show is often exactly the way that the trick is done.
In the end, magic succeeds when the audience believes what the magician wants them to believe: the idea that “[their] act is so awe-inspiring and mystical and magical that how in the world could that amazing magic be due to such lowly subterfuges as microphones and assistants transmitting information?”
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The July issue of Harper‘s includes a remarkable article by Alex Stone, “The Magic Olympics.” Stone’s first-hand account of The World Championships of Magic is stunning, but I want to focus on just a few of his paragraphs that describe a particular illusion (similar to an illusion that we published in a post two weeks ago and re-publish in this post) and that further illustrates the message in the passage above.
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[W]e’re entertained . . . by a . . . hair-raisng sawed-in-half effect. I’v seen hundreds of bisections, but nothing like this. Dressed as a doctor, he chainsaws his patient in half, and then an attractive nurse wheels the torso around on an ersatz gurney, waving her arms hrough the void where his legs ought to be. No box. No curtains. No mirrors. Nothing. What the hell?
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Take a look at the brief Youtube video below.
Social psychology and related fields have demonstrated repeatedly that what we are prepared to see strongly constrains what we can and do see. Those constraints on our thinking leave us vulnerable to manipulation and victims of many illusions in including, as the following excerpt from Stone’s article suggests, the illusion of an illusion
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I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. After a week of biblical astonishments, I feel hardened. Nothing can faze me. But as I file through business class, I see something for which I am wholly unprepared. In the first row sits the illustionist of last night’s sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in th aisle seat, is a slender dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing. I can’t help but stare, and for a moment I wonder if anyone can hear my mind snap.
Magicians will go to great lengths in pursuit of the ultimate illusion, concealing silk inside a thumb tip, or doves in a coat, or any number of small objects within the delicate folds of a well-hemmed topit. But concealing an entire man–or rather, half a man–and flying him across the glove in service of a five-minute routine is something else entirely, something far stranger, something brilliant, yes, but also sad. Did the half-man, kept hidden in a hotel room, see nothing of Stockholm? What sort of non-disclosure agreement had he signed? Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?
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Assuming that Stone’s revelation helps to explain the same trick that is captured in the video above (and it may not), how does your reaction compare to Stone’s? Please comment.