Perception and Magic

In recent years, I've been studying a lot about magic (conjuring, illusion, sleight of hand, mentalism, etc--not "magick" or other woo-woo).  Part of my interest stems from my belief, as Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) says, that "there is only one show business", and that includes everything from birthday party clowns to Broadway shows, from sideshows to the opera.  I also love watching the tricks and solving the "how did they do that" puzzle, but I'm writing about it here because magicians are experts at fooling our perceptions, and perception, of course, is the heart of everything we do in entertainment.

Apparently, scientists are looking into this too.  Check out this posting on Science Daily, which, in part, says:

ScienceDaily (July 23, 2008) — Revealing the science behind age-old magic tricks will help us better understand how humans see, think, and act, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia and Durham University in the U.K.

Their study in the current online issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences concludes that elements of human cognition and perception not yet fully understood by scientists may be clarified by analysing tricks and techniques used by magicians over thousands of years.

The investigators explored several of the key techniques of the magic trade -- categorised as "misdirection, illusion and forcing" -- which have only recently been formally identified by scientists and taken seriously as a valid research area.

One person not mentioned in that piece who has been doing a lot of work in this area for many years is psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman, who coined the term "Quirkology" to describe his work, which is "psychological research that is quirky".  I met Richard at The Amazing Meeting some years ago, and I ended up editing his voice for Rebecca Watson's excellent public radio show pilot.  He also did a great Theatre of Science show in NYC.  Richard has a great new book out called Quirkology (link below), and also has produced a bunch of amazing videos which are on You Tube.  Watch this amazing one to see what I'm talking about:

I think those of us who work in any aspect of live performance can learn a lot from magicians, since almost everything we do is based on a trick of perception in one way or another.  Working backstage, we can easily forget that the vast majority of people in our audiences have no idea how we do what we do.  To them, it's all "magic".

Here's a link to Richard's very interesting book:

 Also, here's a great book by Jim Steinmeyer which I think should be required reading for anyone in live performance: