Sleight of mind

I’ve just watched a video of an immensley entertaining TED presentation by ‘brain magician’ Keith Barry who does an act with various ‘mind control’ or ‘mind reading tricks’.

It reminded me of an early book by Derren Brown, an English magician who has a similar pitch. Brown is better known for his more recent TV shows and books, but some of his early publications are fascinating because they not only discuss his approach, but also shed light on our increasingly psychology-focused culture.

Keith Barry’s TED presentation contains part suggestion that would be well-known to hypnotists (in fact, the arm raising and lowering is used in standard hypnotisability measures) and part stage magic, all wrapped up in the language of psychology.

He starts the presentation by noting that the redirection of attention is an important part of magic and gives an example of our tendency to follow the magician’s gaze.

In fact, this is preceded by a clasping trick which surely demonstrates this, where the audience’s attention, and rather unfairly for the internet viewer – the camera, are diverted away from him reclasping his hands in a different manner.

I’m not going to pretend that all of the tricks in Barry or Brown’s shows are obvious, as some leave me completely baffled and in awe. I suspect only poor magicians will allow their tricks to be apparent even to the most curious of psychologists.

However, in Brown’s now sadly out-of-print book Pure Effect he makes the fascinating point that the narrative itself is part of the redirection, and describes how framing magic tricks in psychological language leads to certain expectations which, of course, make certain redirections more easily achievable.

This classic presentational ploy that Banachek calls ‘psychological direction’ allows for the illusion of enormous skill, as long as you let the participants figure out for themselves that you are employing such methods. I believe I earn their respect by denouncing psychic ‘psychic power’ as woolly guff and I challenge those lobotomised flower fairies who believe in such nonsense, appealing to their intelligence and belief in themselves as sceptical creatures. The other advantage of this angle is that is allows the effect to sit comfortably with a magic routine that suggests that similar ploys are at work.

The two sets become connected by a seductive undercurrent of apparently deft manipulation of the participant’s minds. At first, these techniques are being employed to produce wonderful, artistic and mystical effects. Then the tone darkens, and the performer, almost with an air of reluctance, sensing the correct rapport in the group, casts aside his props and amusements and begins to rely entirely on his knowledge of human nature to delve into the thought processes of the group. The spectators sense this intensifying of the situation, and adjust their interpretation of the event accordingly. What we are seeing is no longer trickery.

Such an approach uses our cultural familiarity and belief in psychological explanations to redirect our thinking to one place, while the magician is working the ‘magic’ below our level of awareness. In other words, most of the magic is done before the trick even starts.

This is what most impresses me about professional magicians. The slight of hand and the perceptual tricks are cool, but its the cognitive magic, the shaping of expectancies through narrative, that makes them seem so wondrous.

UPDATE: I just noticed this rather well-timed article on Wired Science entitled ‘Magic Tricks Reveal Inner Workings of the Brain’ that expands on the topic. Enjoy!

Link to Keith Barry TED ‘brain magic’ presentation.

One Comment

  1. Posted August 6, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    There are ways to influence peoples perceptions through the use of words, especially if you can get them to suspend their disbelief. This article contains some deep insight into the philosophy and psychology of magic. Use at your own risk :)


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