Magic Theory

The BBC on Why We Like Magic

The BBC takes a look at why we like magic.

The article is inspired by a recently released book by Dr. Gustav Kuhn from the University of London: Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic. Using science to investigate magicians and how magic works has become rather popular lately. Magicians are, at their core, empiricists. A trick either fools people or it doesn’t. It generates astonishment and applause or it doesn’t. And psychologists are now excited to explore the why behind the how.

But why is magic exciting for us, even when the unexplainable can be deeply discomfiting? As Dr. Kuhn puts it:

Dr Kuhn likens the appeal of a magic trick to that of a horror film.

If such bloodshed was seen in real life, he says, it would be traumatic and awful, but when it’s shown in the safety of a movie, the fear becomes something that people can enjoy.

Likewise, if we were confronted with something which disorientated and distorted our senses, it would be deeply disturbing, but when it’s put into the context of a magic trick, it becomes entertaining and amusing.

The fact that we know it’s not real is an essential part of making it an enjoyable sensation.

A Lecture on Magic

Next Wednesday, I've been invited to give a lecture for the KW Hat & Wand Club in Kitchener, Ontario. (Having been the president of the Sid Lorraine Hat & Rabbit Club for three years, I can confirm that it is legally required that these clubs have goofy names held over from ages past.)

Years ago, Kitchener was home to a biannual magic convention where I had some of my earliest opportunities to meet world renowned magicians, so I have lots of fond memories. I'm also in the neighbourhood performing at private engagements fairly often.

I don't do this type of presentation often, since I have been performing magic professionally for a short amount of time compared to some. At some of these magic gatherings, I can single-handedly drop the average age in the room by five to ten years. 

I'll be sharing some of the material from my show and the thinking behind it. For those interested in seeing how the magic sausage is made, guests welcome.

The lecture is at 7PM on Wednesday, February 15 at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church (54 Queen Street North, Kitchener - map)

Introducing Discourse in Magic

Earlier this month, I sat down with Tyler Williams and Jonah Babins, the hosts of the Discourse in Magic podcast. The podcast is primarily a resource for younger magicians who are looking to improve the quality of their performances in a thoughtful way. So, with a bit of a beginner's mindset, we discussed some of the finer points of putting together a longer-form magic show. Listen here...

The theme of the discussion was the long list of little things that goes into making for a better show — thinking in terms of marginal improvements instead of trying to hold out for "revolutionary" ideas. The idea is that invisible insignificant changes add up to something extremely significant.

One of the most effective techniques I've employed for creating a more complete and inclusive magic experience is the notion of subtly pushing up the start of the show so that you have a head start making a positive impact in your audience is something that I've enjoyed for years. At all of the Magic Tonight & Magic & Martini shows, we work on setting the stage well before the curtain goes up. One of my favourite steps in this process is taking the usual boring pre-show announcement about turning off your cell phones and exploring different ways to make that more fun and exciting and providing more evidence that what follows is more unusual than what you were expecting.

One small part of this is by providing your own introduction. Most people don't know how to give an introduction (because it's something they rarely have to do in their every day lives). The closest they get is saying, of a person standing beside them, "This is Steve." And introductions are hard. How would you compress the decades of your life into something under 100 words? Now add the challenge of making not sound like someone was monotonously reading out an Encyclopedia Britannica article about you. Now also make sure it doesn't sound like a aggrandizing commercial written by your press agent and/or mother. 

So I wrote an introduction for the hosts, which was supposed to be a quick invisible subtle addition to the program, and in a meta-ironic twist, it became all they could talk about. So while there is a rather severe face palm moment at the beginning, we do get around to talking about some very interesting things in what I will always remember as the interview about introductions

No (fair) Dice

Persi Diaconis is an ex-magician. He left the world of professional magic to become a professor of statistics at Stanford. But those influences are still reflected in his work as many of the simple tools used in the exploration of statistics — coins, cards, dice — are also favourite tools of the magician. So nothing specifically to do with magic, but if you wanted to know how fair your super-complicated D&D dice were.

Watch to the end to get the link to the hidden part 2!

The Science of Gambling

When you're a magician, the question comes up often, "Can I take you with me to the casino?" Never mind that there are no casinos in Toronto, my background in math means I'm fascinated by gambling but know enough about the odds to not want to do it in casinos. The Royal Institute in London offers up its public talks for free online and I thought I'd share this really interesting talk about the intersection between science and gambling including using computers to cheat at the roulette and blackjack tables, the mathematics of shuffling applied to card tricks and strange ways to win at the lottery.

And the Q&A to follow up:

Magic and Neuroscience

In recent years, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have taken an interest in magic, and for good reason. Science advances by exploring areas where predictions are experience don't match (think of Einstein and the strange precession in the orbit of Mercury). Magic is exactly one of those circumstances. When you experience a piece of magic, then later reflect back after learning the secret, it's often difficult to understand how you could have been fooled by something so simple — and the secrets behind magic tricks are often unbelievably simple. That means by the light of science there should be something interesting at work.

However most often when researchers try to tackle these issues, they miss the mark. After a superficial interview with a magician or a mentalist, they offer up their best guest at a just-so story. The most blatant example is the 2010 book Sleights of Mind written by two perfectly competent neuroscientists but whose explanations of tricks is downright goofy.

This recent article by Steven Novella at NeuroLogica is refreshingly astute and well worth reading.

Magicians have learned to use various cues to enhance such illusions. They may verbally create an expectation. They also use social cues, like where they direct their vision. Their eyes will follow the non-existent ball, encouraging our brains to top-down perceive it. Further, the entire act can create a meta-expectation that something fantastic will occur. Everyone knows that magic is not real, but the magician creates the impression that they have fantastic skill, and are doing something very complex. The astonishment of those around us may also encourage us to be astonished.