Tommy Wonder on Religion

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his  The Books of Wonder (1996).

He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:

“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”

This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:

“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”

The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.

Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.

Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.

Theatrical Magic and the Sciences

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

The past three years I have been studying the relationship between magic and science and studied hundreds of articles about the performance of magic tricks from many different fields of science. From this I found that the relationship between magic and the sciences is bidirectional.

Firstly, magicians use the principles of science to create the illusion of magic. They use the principles of psychology, physics, linguistics, engineering and so on to perform their tricks. The second relationship between magic and science is that Scientists study what magicians do. For example, psychologists try to find out how people can be deceived, occupational therapists try to help people improve people’s lives by teaching them magic tricks and scholars in the field of gender studies develop ideas on why so few women are involved in the performance of magic.

For my Perspectives on Magic project I have created an annotated bibliography of scientific research into theatrical magic. The table below provides an overview of the relationship between theatrical magic and the different fields of science. The middle column shows the fields of science used by magicians to create the illusion of magic. The last column shows the fields of science which have studied magic performances.

Theatrical magic and science

Sciences Magic Trick Methods Study magic and magicians
Physical Sciences Chemistry
Physics
Life Sciences Health sciences
Neuroscience
Ophthalmology
Physiology Physiology
Social Sciences Anthropology
Business studies
Education
Gender Studies
Film Studies
History
Law
Library Science
Linguistics Linguistics
Performance Studies Performance Studies
Psychology Psychology
Sociology
Applied Sciences Engineering Computer programming
Dentistry
Education
Nursing
Occupational Therapy
Formal Sciences Mathematics
Information Theory

You can read more about the relationship between magic and science in my book Perspectives on Magic.

Adelaide Magic Convention

Cards from mouth

Fun with cards.

The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.

Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.

The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.

The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.

In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.

Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning  second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.

I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.

Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.

I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.

Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.

The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

In an earlier Facebook/Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonder I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge

I have recently been introduced to ted.com, a great website that features “riveting talks by remarkable people”. One of the talks that I found fascinating is by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the TV series Lost. One of the most thought-provoking things he says is:

Sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge.

The absence of knowledge by its very nature characterises a mystery. It is used in all narrative art forms, but none more so than in magic.

We are all educated to strive for knowledge, to remove the mystery from our lives and seek explanations. Having knowledge is rewarded in life, and we are conditioned to favour knowledge over mystery as soon as we go to school. Every problem has an answer, is the adagio of our society.

This striving for knowledge is the reason that magic as a theatre form can be frustrating to people. We are used to possessing knowledge and in contemporary society, knowledge is more democratised than ever before. We no longer tolerate mystery in our lives. Max Weber called this the Entzauberung (disenchantment) of our world.

When people see a magic performance and have absolutely no idea how the trick works, they sometimes just call out whatever solution enters their mind. Magician Tommy Wonder wrote beautifully about this. Finding a solution, no matter how improbable, reduces their cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is a tension created in the spectator’s psyche, caused by the mystery they are confronted with.

I recently performed a magic show for a group of children where this issue was beautifully illustrated. The oldest boy in the group, he was about ten years old, came to me before the show and said:

Are you the magician? … Magic is all fake isn’t it?

I was a bit taken back by his direct approach and replied:

But it is fun isn’t it?

During the show, he was always ready to point out that he knew how the trick was done. He was trying to reduce his cognitive dissonance and also showing the other kids that he was smarter than me.

One of the most difficult aspects of performing magic is not producing the actual effect—anyone with enough stamina can learn the most complicated sleight of hand. The art of magic is in the presentation and contemporary magic also ensuring that the spectator does not leave with a feeling of frustration. I have therefore constructed my magic show for children so that the focus is not on the mystery, but on what happens before and in many cases I act as surprised as they are.

It is the task of the storyteller—and magicians are also storytellers—to let the spectator experience mystery without increasing their cognitive dissonance. This challenge is the key to making magic entertaining.

Know Thyself: Personality Tests are Worthless

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated …

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “self-knowledge is enlightenment”.

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world. It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware. It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave .

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the ‘Forer Effect’. Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.

The end of magic?

discoverieI have recently purchased a facsimile copy of Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (originally published in 1584). This is an important book in the history of Western civilisation as it is the first ever book in which methods for creating magic are explained. This might seem an overstatement, as magic is nowadays a trivialised from of theatre which barely has any influence on the way we think.

Scott’s book is important because it was the first time somebody openly challenged the belief in witchcraft and supernatural powers by exposing conjuring methods. The book contains some interesting magic; there are pictures of trick knives that make it seem like you are cutting your nose or finger. The picture on the left shows a contraption used to create the illusion of somebody’s head being severed. There is also a description of a Magic Colouring Book, which is still used in children’s magic shows and many other tricks still performed by contemporary magicians.

The book was published in the Renaissance, a period which heralded Western culture as we know it today. Although many people see the renaissance as a period where Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, some do not see this as a positive development. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, for example, questioned whether the renaissance was a positive change and argued that it was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important.

One of the important cultural phenomena that was destroyed was the sense of magic commonplace in humanity. The Discoverie of Witchcraft illustrates helped this development by dispelling magic as tricks. It might seem strange for an engineer/philosopher like myself to argue that dispelling a belief in magic would not be a good thing. Magic is, however, more than a simplistic belief in supernatural forces that control our lives.

Read more about the end of magic in: Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring

Read more about the end of magic in: Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring

Magicians have been part of human civilisation for as long as there are records—and possibly as long as human culture exists. There are many anthropological accounts of medicine men and shamans using conjuring skills as part of their healing and rituals. Most magic history books interpret this use of sleight of hand as an attempt by the shaman to obtain power mischievously. But there is much more to magic than one person gaining power over others. Magic is a means to understand our position in nature. Although some might argue that magic has been wiped from contemporary culture, it has never actually disappeared from our psyche.

Simple acts, such as writing your name on a wall are in fact magical. To some this is a simple act of vandalism, but that is not the real motivation for people to do this. Writing your name on a wall makes the wall becomes an extension of yourself and you become part of the wall. It is a way to exert our self onto the world. This is I think the deeper psychological reason for the popularity of tagging. Tagging is a way to impart part of your self onto the environment in which you live. This is in essence an act of magic because it is a way to connect the inner world (psychology) with physical reality. There is no rational reason to write your name on a wall

There are many more examples of non-rational behaviour; why do we prefer one brand over another? Why we choose one political party or football team over another? When analysing motivations in every day choices we see that people often cross the horizon of reason and this is the realm of magical thinking. Magic, as a psychological force, is still alive and kicking in a hyper-modern world.


Read more about the future of magic in my book Perspectives on Magic.