Magic, Life and Marmite

People love and hate magic in equal measure and for similar reasons. What ever side of the fence you sit, the question is the same, how do magicians do it? Do you feel frustrated at being ‘tricked’ or does it trigger similar emotions you felt as a child when you saw something new for the first time?

As children, the world is a brand new place for us – everything is a mystery. We embrace the unknown simply because we have no other choice, maybe this is why they are so enthusiastic about magic. Then something happens… we grow up. We develop critical faculty and that wonder is replaced by fear, we learn that the unknown can be dangerous and discover the hard way that what we don’t know can hurt us. 

It’s ok not to like magic, our brains are designed to look for causal links, if you know that A equals B, and a magician creates a situation where A equals C then we develop cognitive overload. The human mind is designed to look for patterns, to identify connections between life experiences i.e. if I don’t look both ways when crossing the street I may get knocked over or if I don’t put suncream on in hot weather I will burn my skin. Making these kinds of links is beneficial for human survival, but what sense can our mind make of situations where the pattern of an experience isn’t as predicted? This is where the magic happens.

The reality presented by a magician isn’t the the reality our brains are used to engaging with, thus creating something called ‘cognitive dissonance’. This is where our brain forces us to justify events even if they didn’t go as expected. Eventually a point occurs where the brain cannot rationalise the events it’s just seen as magic creates a situation which can’t physically exist, thus leading to a unique sense of astonishment.

Magicians have explored the techniques that most effectively divert attention or exploit the shortcomings of human vision and awareness. This is known as ‘exogenous attentional capture’, the brain will always be drawn to something new that it has difficulty predicting and this will disrupt the processing of that experience.

Our brain sometimes ‘remembers’ certain actions or processes, it stops paying close attention because it predicts how they will end. This is known as a ‘memory-prediction framework’. When a magician puts a ball in a cup only to have it disappear when the cup is lifted, we are shocked because what our brain predicted didn’t come true. Our brains often feeds us a prediction and convinces us that we saw it happen, which leaves us even more shocked when the predicted action didn’t happen at all.

On a physiological level. The release of Oxytocin makes acts of cooperation and social interaction ‘feel good’. Oxytocin release means people are less likely to be critical of the tricks they are watching and even more likely to miss sleight of hand because the attention will be drawn to the magicians face as they engage with and charm their audience.

Magic’s gift is wonder and amazement, magicians make people question their reality, making the impossible seem possible. As we grow older we dilute this world, life can become predictable, unchanging and dull. We have a hard time accepting that life can’t always be the way we want, that we won’t always have the answer we need. In the words of Lao-Tzu ‘Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them as it only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality.’

The solution may be simple, enjoy the magic that you encounter in your life, accept it and go with the flow.

Information cited from and Davenport Magic Training, Charing Cross, London.

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