Recently, the News and Tribune reported that professional magician Brent Braun is opening a magic shop and theater in New Albany this summer. Braun has an impressive list of credits as a performer, illusion creator, and consultant to other magicians. He acquired his current interest in magic after visiting Jeffersonville’s Greater Louisville Magic Emporium. I vaguely remember this magic shop, which was located on Spring Street next to Schimpff’s Confectionery.
I’ve had an interest in magic for a long time, although like playing chess and the trumpet, I was never very good at it. Still, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice,” I always felt, “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
As a child, my father taught me one classic magic trick. In his book, “Picture Yourself As a Magician,” Wayne Kawamoto calls this illusion the “Vanishing Coins with Rings” trick. I was hooked. The first book I ever bought with my own money was “Houdini on Magic,” written by magician Walter Gibson. I always envied my spoiled cousin Larry, who had some actual stage magician paraphernalia, including a small magic table that would produce a fake bouquet by pushing a hidden button.
I suppose the last magician my wife Diane and I saw was Tom Crecelius from Miltown, performing at the Blue River Café. Tom was a good magician, but I always liked his recitation of James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” best.
I had a magic kit and annoyed my whole family, making them watch me stumble through the tricks over and over. Over the years, I’ve noted that many people don’t care for magic and some are downright hostile toward it. Magicians are often stereotyped as being kind of geeky, like the Phil Dunphy character in the “Modern Family” sitcom.
Kawamoto has described some mistakes made by beginners that may provoke backlash from audiences. Perhaps the most undesirable factor is displaying arrogance or acting smarter than the audience. Also, some magicians embarrass their volunteers. This happened to me at a high school assembly and I’m sure I’ll get over it in another 20 years or so.
Psychologists tend to be interested in magic. Gustav Kuhn, from the University of London, said, “Intuitively, the link between magic and psychology seems obvious: Magicians use techniques such as misdirection to manipulate our attention, illusions to distort our perception, and influencing our decisions.”
In 2010, State University of New York neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde wrote “Sleights of Mind,” which describes the neuropsychological basis of magic. Human attention and awareness have limitations and vulnerabilities that can be readily breached and exploited. They believe that researching magical illusions can increase our understanding of these aspects of perception and cognition.
The “illusion of choice” is one core technique of magic that is also seen in sales, marketing, and even parenting. For example, an automobile sales person might ask you, “Do you want this car in red or would you prefer the blue?” A real estate agent might first show you a house that meets your basic requirements but is extremely overpriced and then follow that up by showing you a similar house that is less overpriced. A parent might say to a child, “It’s getting late, would you rather pick up your toys or brush your teeth?”
In my favorite card trick, the illusion of choice is used to force a person to pick the specific card that I want them to pick, but always appearing to give them a choice of many cards.
Optical illusions show how vision, our most trusted system of obtaining information, can easily be duped. My first magic kit contained two curved cardboard pieces. If you held the pieces together back-to-back, you could see that they were exactly the same size. When, however, you placed one of the pieces on top of the other, the one on top suddenly looked shorter. When you switch their positions the other piece looked shorter. This simple illusion shows how easily our senses can be deceived.
Repetition is another factor that affects perception. In the vanishing ball illusion, the magician throws a ball up in the air several times. Then he just pretends to throw the ball up in the air and it suddenly appears to disappear. Even though the ball just stays in the magician’s hand, almost two thirds of people believe they see a phantom ball being tossed up on the final throw. Dogs also always fall for this trick.
Psychologist Susan Whitbourne, from the University of Massachusetts, says that “Magic works because our brains are constantly filling in the gaps presented by the stimuli in our environment. If you’re forced to look away during one of those gaps due to a distracting event… for even half a second, by the time you look back, the magician will have created the illusion.”
Sensory overload is a related technique that stresses the sensory apparatus to such an extent that information begins to be lost. In a famous experiment on attention and overload, participants were instructed to watch a video and count how many times the basketball players wearing white passed the ball. While they were preoccupied with this task about half of the subjects failed to notice that a woman wearing a gorilla suit came onto the gym floor, looked at the camera and thumped her chest. This blindness for unexpected objects allows us to retain our focus in distracting environments, which is great for getting things done and magical illusions, but perhaps not so great for driving.
Several years ago, I met James Randi, a professional magician who performed under the name “The Amazing Randi.” He had retired from performing and had founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) in Florida. Like Harry Houdini, Randi thought that people claiming supernatural or psychic powers were frauds who employed illusions to deceive and often exploit others. The foundation was established to challenge paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. It once offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could conclusively demonstrate supernatural phenomenon. Randi is now 90 years old and retired from the JREF a few years ago. The foundation still awards grants to support the teaching of critical thinking skills. Back then, I was tempted to take a job with JREF. Maybe I could have fooled Randi with my dad’s trick and won the million bucks.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at email@example.com.