Smoke and Mirrors: The psychology of magic

Smoke and Mirrors: The psychology of magic


My only real close contact with a magician, was with a delightful nonagenarian, and survivor of the horrors of the Burma Railway, called Fergus Anckorn, who died two years ago aged 99; the oldest member of the Magic Circle. As an 18-year-old conjuror called ‘Wizardus’, he was their youngest member, before he signed up and was shipped to Singapore, only to be captured by the Japanese and made a prisoner-of-war for three-and-a-half years of torture and mistreatment. He was also a member of an arts club that I belong to, and he would happily perform in front of its members and guests. One trick he did after he had confounded the audience, involving a pen-knife that changed colour as I watched, literally, in front of my eyes, completely baffled me, and I said to him, ‘how on earth did you do that?’ followed immediately by the rejoinder, ‘actually, I really don’t want to know.’ Not that he would have told me, anyway. The Wellcome Collection has come up with an exhibition that makes the connection between magic and psychology, and endeavours to give a few scientific answers to questions that apparently defy explanation. The exhibition is divided into three main themes, The Medium, Misdirection and Mentalism, and a common theme running through them all is Deception, which can be broken down into Perception, Reasoning and Memory. In one video highlighting misdirection, the visitor is asked to count the number of times three people in white tops pass basketballs to each other, milling around three other people in black. At the end of the clip, one is pretty pleased with oneself when one gets the correct number of 15 passes. However, when the video is replayed, one is astonished to see a man in a gorilla suit walking backwards through the action!

In another example a conjuror shows us five cards and we are asked to choose one card, which we are told will disappear. When the four cards are revealed, the card I selected was not there. Well, blow me! A cognitive psychologist Gustav Kuhn then explains that all the cards had been changed whilst we were being distracted, so whatever card we chose could not possibly be there; we just assumed that the cards would be the same and we did not remember what they were in the first place.

The first exhibits deal with The Medium, focusing on séances and spiritualism as performed in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, and their relationship with science, and the emergence of psychology, to examine so-called ‘paranormal’ phenomena, which were rife at the time, particularly after the First World War and the Spanish-flu pandemic, when the bereaved wanted to get in touch with their lost loved ones. Spiritualism had millions of followers, including such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was earlier duped by the photographs of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’.

The famed escapologist and magician Harry Houdini took on the veracity of a medium Margery Crandon in 1924, when she attempted to win a prize of $2,500 offered by the magazine Scientific American, open to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific control. After rigorous testing, Houdini came to the conclusion that she was a complete and utter fraud. ‘The slickest ruse I ever detected,’ Houdini said later, in something close to admiration. and she failed to take the prize. One clip of a scéance filmed with an infrared camera, shows the medium and his accomplice blatantly moving objects about a table encircled by a number of trusting subjects, or dupes, holding hands in the dark.

Mentalism looks at how magicians and mind-readers practise their skills, using quite sophisticated psychology and basic techniques of auto-suggestion and hidden psychological ‘tells’, as well as the trickery and illusion, as one might expect. Although some magicians claim to have genuine psychic powers in their mind-control stunts, most can be explained scientifically, including horoscopes, although hypnotism still remains an inexact science. Recently, psychologists have dramatically revised their ideas about how hypnosis works, and it is that of social compliance, social pressure and simple obedience to someone in authority. In other words, it simply works because the subjects believe it will. A good magician can make you think you are making a free choice, while skillfully leading you towards only one outcome. Televangelist and self-styled faith healer Peter Popoff was exposed with a hidden earpiece, listening to his wife transmitting excerpts from prayer request cards filled out by audience members, proclaiming this information as divine revelation and ‘God-given ability,’ in his psychic scam routine. During one of his stints, his wife had reportedly transmitted, ‘Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can’t, you’re in trouble.’ It made him and his family very rich, and, even after his unmasking as a charlatan, he was up to his old tricks again, this time flogging ‘Miracle Spring Water’ on late-night infomercials in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

One of the two curators is an artist, A R Hopwood, who has worked closely with experimental psychologists and neuroscientists on the subject of false memory, and the other is a Wellcome Collection curator, Honor Beddard, who worked on the excellent The Institute of Sexology exhibition at the Wellcome four years ago.

Smoke and Mirrors: The psychology of magic

Wellcome Collection

Until 15 September 2019

Admission free

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