Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic

Wellcome Collection 11th April - 15th September 2019

For hundreds of years magicians have exploited the gap between what we think we perceive (everything) and what we actually perceive (by necessity, very little) to achieve astonishing feats of trickery. Recently, scientists have begun to appreciate this ability as a powerful tool for the study of human psychology. Yet, as this exhibition demonstrates, this relatively new area of study has emerged from an extraordinary history that stretches back to the 19th century, uniting an explosion of public interest in the paranormal with the birth of science as a profession and the flourishing of the entertainment industry.

Casualties of war and disease in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to popular interest in spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. Many people attended séances in the hope of contacting the spirit of a loved one, ouija boards became a common parlour game, and new photographic technologies attempted to capture ghostly phenomena invisible to the human eye. Simultaneously, visitors flocked to the entertainment halls where they witnessed Victorian magicians replicating these paranormal effects in hugely successful, profitable and popular stage shows. 

In early examples of interdisciplinary research, psychical researchers joined forces with magicians in the late 19th century to design experiments that tested the evidence emanating from the séance room. Objects in the exhibition from the Society for Psychical Research’s extensive archives include wax fingerprints, said to have been made by the spirits, and photographs depicting the physical restraints imposed upon mediums during testing. Such investigations did much to enrich psychological knowledge by interrogating how we evaluate evidence and process our individual experiences – questions that still engage leading researchers in the behavioural sciences.

Experimental psychologists from the Science of Magic Association at Goldsmiths, University of London are currently picking apart what we attend to during an act of misdirection performed by a skilled magician. By using eye-tracking technology they have shown that we often don’t see how a trick is done, even when we’re looking directly at its method of delivery. Magicians knew this already, and Tommy Cooper’s meticulous stage prop plans on display in the exhibition suggest his non-stop chatter and strings of failed tricks might in fact be yet another layer of misdirection.The roll call of female assistants, playing second fiddle to male illusionists across history, has ensured that few suspect them of being so crucial to the illusion’s success.

As contemporary magicians and mentalists refine a range of tricks that create the impression that they (and we) have hidden psychological or psychic potential, are we as well-equipped as we like to think to resist being seduced by such deceptions? Recent psychology studies suggest that we can firmly believe such false explanations, even when we have prior knowledge that the performer is a conjuror. Are the honest lies of the magician just entertainment or are there ethical limits to the deceptive arts?

It is a close and sophisticated reading of human behaviour combined with incredible dexterity that enables magicians to create such powerful and enduring illusions. The science of magic offers insights into how our mind works that not only further the study of psychology but also raise awareness about our own susceptibility to suggestion, misinformation and deception – insights that have never been more critical. 

A.R. Hopwood and Honor Beddard

Curators, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic

 

 

© A.R. Hopwood 2019. All Rights Reserved. 

Photography by Thomas Farnetti