Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Smoke and mirrors

I was briefly into performing magic as a kid, inspired by Paul Daniels on the telly if truth be told. A visit to the Wellcome Collection’s fascinating new exhibition, ‘Smoke and Mirrors – The Psychology of Magic‘, has re-ignited my interest and reminded me just how malleable the human mind can be.

Magic in the sense of “exploiting the gap between what we think we perceive and what we actually perceive” is hundreds of years old, but what this exhibition tracks is the relatively modern interaction between science and trickery. Based on work by psychologists at the wonderfully named MAGIC lab at Goldsmiths University, the exhibition investigates how tricksters from conjurors to psychics, evangelists to mind-readers, use mis-direction, the power of suggestion, and a simple desire to believe to astonish and cheat their respective audiences.

I work in a world of facts and data, but sadly as this exhibition explains, humans are just as likely to form beliefs based upon pure trickery. Spiritualism and the belief that it is possible to make contact with the dead emerged in late nineteenth century Europe in response to large casualties of war and disease. “Mediums” earned a living by claiming to have the power to communicate with lost loved ones and then magicians worked out their tricks and created a different type of performance for a paying audience.

As a member of the Junior Magic Circle I remember reading about John Nevil Maskelyne, the pioneer of modern magic, and the exhibition boasts some wonderful posters advertising his Victorian era shows at Egyptian Hall. Interestingly, also on the bill is “Mrs Daffodil Downey’s Seance”, which appears to be all part of the entertainment.

Other mediums, however, were not so upfront about the illusions they were creating, causing the great escape artist, Harry Houdini, to publicly reveal the tricks used by a leading spiritualist, Margery Crandon. Two letters from Houdini set out his assertion that if he were allowed in the same room as Crandon he would either be able to stop her performing her feats, or replicate them himself.

Houdini’s intervention, however, only seemed to serve to stoke up support for Mrs Crandon, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, becoming her most prominent backer. This was front-page news, with the public fairly evenly split, as contemporary broadsheets reveal.

More worryingly, even in a 2018 experiment involving an audience of psychology students, two thirds of respondents were convinced that what they had witnessed really was psychic, not the magic trick their professors had in fact performed.

It is all very interesting, but I got more excited as the exhibition moved on to the stuff that I was into as a child – street magic, where illusionists make balls disappear under cups and deal themselves a Royal Flush to win a round of poker. This is the realm of sleight of hand and misdirection, where the performer does something right in front of the audience’s eyes, but they just don’t see it.

There’s a wonderful video in the exhibition where one can watch in slow motion as a conjuror tosses a ball out of a cup and up in the air a couple of times, and then on the third throw makes the same motion, but doesn’t actually throw the ball. Two thirds of any audience watching this in real time, however, as Dr Gustav Kuhn explains, will swear blind that they saw the ball go up in the air and then vanish into thin air. Our brains see patterns and then tell our eyes that because a ball went up in the air the first two times the arm holding the cup moved, it probably happened the third time too, and so our grey matter (un)helpfully fills in the blanks in the picture where the missing ball should have been.

Mentalists, like Derren Brown, use similar but different techniques. The trick of their trade is to make us believe that the performer can read our thoughts, often to reveal information that was impossible for them to know, when in fact we ourselves have “told” them everything. “I bet you’re the kind of person who hates puzzles”, the mentalist might say to an audience volunteer, “but you also love it when you solve them”. There are clearly two potentially contradictory assertions here, but the audience member, who already has a mindset to be impressed, only latches on the one that is correct: “Yes that’s true – I hate puzzles. How did you know that?”

Similarly, mind-readers, follow the odds, such as the statistic that there are six playing cards out of fifty-two that are chosen a majority of the time by people given a free choice to “pick a card”. Armed with this knowledge and a bit of sleight of hand, or “forcing”, the magician has a pretty good chance of guessing the car the unwitting audience member chooses, apparently of their own free will.

Another video shows a magician rifling through a pack of cards and asks us to remember just one of them. I was with the ninety per cent of visitors who picked the Queen of Hearts. When the video is slowed down you can see why – the magician has the dexterity to pause just fractionally longer on this card than any other. In retrospect I didn’t register any other card at all, the rest of the movement was so fast, so in reality there was no “choice”: the magician had “forced” the Queen of Hearts on me.

That’s the beauty of magic as entertainment, though. Even when you sort of know how the trick is done it is still exciting to be fooled, especially when the magician tells you what they are going to do and then produces an extra twist that appears to confound the secret that was previously revealed.

There’s a dark side as well, however, and at the bottom of the pile are the greedy so-called preachers, who prey on the sick and needy to convince them that one or other god will cure them. The disgusting TV evangelist, Peter Popoff, is shown in the exhibition diagnosing fee-paying congregation members’ illnesses courtesy of a concealed earpiece, and them proceeding to humiliate them as he manhandles them while screaming that God will free them of their ailment.

I was inwardly ranting at the screen at that point, just as a professor from Goldsmiths emerged to start a talk on the exhibition, but unfortunately I had to run for a train (check out the Wellcome website for dates of further talks and performances). But I was anyway inspired enough to risk trying out a few of my old magic tricks on my nieces last weekend. I don’t know what they really thought of my cup and balls trick, or the 4 Kings that turn into 4 Aces, but they at least pretended to be impressed! Sometimes even the magician can be fooled..

2 Responses to “Smoke and mirrors”

  1. R Collins

    Fascinating. Next time I’m in London , I shall go and see, remembering that the exhibitions are closed on a Monday.



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