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.
Magician Penn Jillette explains in this video how he converted to Christianity:
And then after a suitable awkward pause and the gotcha moment, he goes on to share a very sincere message of hope explaining what’s wrong with the term islamophobia and how to go about helping people you disagree with.
Maybe we’re doing this all wrong, trying to listen to politicians and academics. Maybe the way to a better tomorrow is by listening to magicians and jugglers.
On Thursday, September 15, I’ll be involved in a most unusual show in Toronto:
(it’s not what you think it is… I swear)
Many performers dread the thought of arriving at an event to discover that part or all of their show is missing (or more likely, that some airline personnel have skilfully redirected it to the wrong city as part of their mission to increase the amount of entropy in the universe.) This is a show where we make this happen on purpose.
A few hours before the show, seven magicians will be given a limited budget and a destination store (like a convenience store) and have to generate an act based on what they can acquire in a limited amount of time. It’s a test of ingenuity, creativity and audacity. I’ll be one of the judges, which I suspect may be a more difficult job that what awaits the performers.
The show details for the show are:
Thursday, September 15 @ 8:00 PM
Revival (783 College Street)
Advance tickets are $20 and are available online now. If you’re able to make it out I’m sure it will be a most exciting and unique evening.
As Douglas Adams famously proved, “if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
This coming weekend, I’ll be performing at a rather unusual event — The Non-Conference. Contrary to its name, it is a conference. It’s a one-day conference for non-believers in Niagara Falls, Saturday, August 13.
Speakers at the conference include Maajid Nawaz (who recently co-wrote a book with one of my favourite authors), Catherine Dunphy (a former executive director of The Clergy Project, Scott Clifton (I’ll let you figure out on your own why they invited a three-time Emmy winner General Hospital cast member) and several more. If you’re free to attend, it will be a terrific event. Tickets are $159 for the day.
My part comes in at the special sit down VIP dinner on Friday, August 12 where guests have a chance to sit down with the speakers. I’ll be doing some good old fashioned magic with a skeptical bent. I believe there are still a few tickets left for the dinner.
Photo by Irina Popova (with Godel’s ontological proof of the existence of God in the background)
The Simpsons have weighed in on the upcoming US Presidential Election. As someone who embraces habit and tradition, I still watch the Simpsons regularly even though they are well (well) past their prime. But this is fairly astute.
As you may recall, the Simpsons actually predicted a Trump presidency in an episode several years ago.
Hiding up here in Canada, I’m watching this election coverage with a strange fascination. The Trump nomination defies all reason and yet here it is. I don’t want to get bogged down discussing politics for the wrong country, so I’ll just take a moment now to congratulate our neighbours to the south on electing their first female President and we son’t have to talk about it anymore.
I was raised on Monty Python. British comedy just tickles me in all of the right places. So I’m delighted that John Cleese, one of the groups five surviving members, is starting his own church. Of course it’s satire… although I’m tempted to tithe a small amount anyway.
In recent years, Mr. Cleese has been very publicly interested in human psychology, in particular applying that psychology to creativity. You’ll see some very pointed remarks about human nature that are most instructive.
There are a few Canadians appearing on this season of Penn & Teller Fool Us. Mahdi Gilbert is perhaps the most remarkable among them because he performs magic despite being born without hands. As a result, all of the magic he performs is done with techniques he devised himself. Actually, all of the everything he does is based on techniques he devised himself, from things as simple as taking playing cards out of their box.
Being from Toronto, I’ve known Mahdi for several years and have watched as his magic has evolved over that time. It’s been a remarkable journey to observe and this brief national television appearance is, hopefully, just another step on the path.
So take a look and see if he manages to fool the great Penn & Teller:
Some of the fondest moments from my years performing magic have been performing magic for seniors (primarily through the Senior Sorcery program). Often they will share stories of magic from their own lives, magicians they had seen. This is magic of a whole ‘nother kind.
This weekend, at an excursion/party at a cottage in Buckhorn, Ontario (I had never heard of it either), I was asked if I would perform for a bit and I agreed. Most cottages contain a deck of cards or three and I was handed this deck to perform with:
The deep, deep irony of this is that Ernst & Young is where my parents met. So I did get a life that way.