As a magician I am not supposed to take you behind the scenes but I’m going to break that rule right here anyway and take you behind the scenes. No I’m not going to reveal to you how David Copperfield made the Statue Of Liberty Disappear or how Harry Houdini made a Indian elephant vanish (that’s why Google exists). I’m not going to reveal any secrets of a magician to you. My goal here is to illustrate in plain English the complexities of magic.
When you watch a magician, what you are experiencing isn’t what’s actually going on. Your eyes are watching a series of complex maneuvers with the fingers or apparatus. Your ears are hearing the tonality of the magician’s voice. The Laws of Physics are being played out before your very eye. What the magician does is not magic. What you experience is magic.
The Magic & Joke Connection
I vaguely remember a time when I was really young. It was Halloween and we had just arrived at one of my cousin’s house for Trick Or Treat. After receiving the sugary substance, leaving the house for the car – another one of my cousin’s jumped from a crouched position in the grass – scaring the ever living daylights out of me. I screamed and when I figured out who it was I laughed hysterically. How could some scary surprise like that make me laugh so hard? To understand that we have to go almost a quarter of a Century later to Branson Missouri.
I was 17 and the family was on holiday in the Ozarks. Branson Missouri is home to some of the best magic shows on the Eastern side of the Mississippi. We were going to see every single magic show Branson had to offer (and we did, except for Justin Flom who was out of town that week). Every single magic show was jam packed with comedy. After seeing Bart Rockett I obtained Volume 3 in the Tarbell Course for the soul purpose of understanding comedy better to make my show more comedic.
Tarbell discussed how magic was inherently because it is packed with surprises.
When you go see a comedian, it’s not the stories the comedian tells that’s funny – its that unexpected punchline that triggers a laughter.
Just as a magician uses smoke & mirrors, a comedian is using a very similar sleight; stories and timing to deliver a surprising punchline that prompts a laughter.
Both a magic show and a stand up comic are working on an identical battlefield with an identical objective – to flood your brain with as much dopamine as possible. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals to the brain, central nervous system and the rest of the body the feeling of pleasure, motivation & satisfaction. It is the “feel good” hormone most often blamed for addictions (though there are many neurotransmission co-conspirators).
When you get a dopamine rush from a magic show or a late night stand up comic, you are essentially experiencing a skin deep orgasmic response
Memory As A Magician’s Tool
Recall what I said earlier about what you experienced in a magic show isn’t exactly what happened? If you recall in a earlier post I published about the deceptive nature of human attention span ? If we were to compare the human brain to that of a computer, we would use terms like”System 1″ & “System 2”. System 1&2 are exactly the terms cognitive psychologists an cognitive neuroscientists use. System 1 is fast and impulsive. System 2 is slow and methodical. Magicians exploit this for all it’s worth and many times without realizing it. When you watch a magician, you are seeing the Law of Physics being played out in a well orchestrated heist of your mind. A skilled magician leaves nothing to chance. Every word and every action has it’s place. Just the actions of a magician alone are as fascinating as watching paint dry.
We see a magician hold a coin. And then the coin is gone. At the microscopic level, light waves and particles bounces off the coin and enters the lens of the eyes, through the retina til it hits photoseptic nerves in the back of the eye, sensory information is then sent up the optic nerve to the brain.
By the time the information arrives at the brain the magician has already executed the move to make the coin vanish. The visual of a coin vanishing in the magician’s hand is a memory.
While we have a lot of cherished memories, our memories can’t be 100% reliable. Memory is a complex feat of mental gymnastics I won’t cover here. Memories aren’t instantly stored and retrieved the moment your brain processes information. The act of remembering something involves a process of acquisition, repetition and retrieval. A memory gets stronger every time it is retrieved but it is also at its most vulnerable. If you were to experience blunt force trauma to your head during the act of retrieving a memory, it is at risk of being destroyed – obliterated from existence. Memory formation is also vulnerable during the acquisition phase. A police interigation may land an innocent person behind bars for life simply during the acquisition and retrieval stages (and the study of false memories is well documented). False memories. Whether a magician knows it or not, a suggestive false memory can easily be given to a spectator to make a magical moment more extraordinary than it actually was. Magicians do this all the time.
During the early 2000’s David Blaine made a name for himself by taking a camera crew around New York City, performing magic to unsuspected people, being a pioneer in how 21st Century magic was televised. In one instance, he levitated off the ground and on lookers could swear he was several feet off the ground. A cynical personal would suspect some sort of suspension mechanism was involved and the onlookers were just stooges. Some of them may have been, but Blaine’s feat had been around for ages and it relied on no crane or wire. It was 99% presentation and 1% timing. Blaine wasn’t suspended long enough for any sort of memory to form and when it ended, his conviction and what the onlookers saw was a convincing illusion of a man levitation several feet off the ground. I won’t reveal the method but I will say that David Blaine, at no point hovered a few feet off the ground.
Uri Geller, a Israeli sensation took the World by storm in the 1970s and on word with his claim and demonstrations of being able to bend metal with his mind. Metal bending had been a thing in magic circles long before but it was Geller that moved it into the spotlight. Geller wasn’t presenting it as magic but as real supernatural powers.
Richard Osterlind, a Connecticut / Kentucky based mentalist & magician also noted for doing spoon bending feats similar to Uri Geller recalled in one of his book: “Mind Over Matter” a instance when he was at a restaurant and Uri Geller was on TV supposedly bending spoons (the part where the spoons were supposedly bending had been conveniently cut from the viewer). Osterlind demonstrated that he could do it too without a TV cut. The onlookers still preferred Uri’s bend over Osterlind’s even though they were both identical – simply because they THOUGHT they saw, via false memory a better bend in progress from Uri than Osterlind.
Time Itself Is Both A Sense & A Illusion
We all know about the 5 basic senses; sight, smell, taste, hearing & feeling. There are other senses; such as balance, movement, space & time. If you were put in a dark room, you would loose all sense of space. If I put a strobe light at high speed to your feet and asked you to move forward, you would feel like you were moving slower than you actually are. If I put you in a casino hall, or a room without any windows, doors or clocks you would loose all sense of time. In fact you would never get tired.
It takes a LONG time to become a magician. Before you can perform, you have to study, you then have to practice, then rehearse, analyze, create a script and perform. Before you perform you must get it all set up. In some cases a 5 second magic trick can take an hour or 2 to even prepare. Aside from a basic understanding of physics, human nature, good word use- one of magician’s greatest weapon is time. While a magician is distracting you with his eyes and words, he is doing something else. The diversion of attention is only a means to give the magician time to execute a secret move. Or no move at all.
Max Malini was a turn of the Century magician who immigrated to the United States from Poland who understood the importance of patience. He was notorious for setting up a routine, to create the illusion of it being unplanned weeks in advance, waiting for the opportune time. Max’s catch phase summed up his mode of operation very well; “I vait a veek”.
Some of the most magical moments in life come to us when we set up for the opportunity and wait. One of the most valuable, life saving lessons magic teaches us is that, you can be fooled just as easily as anyone else and things in life aren’t always as they seem.