May 05, 2011

How Does Magic Fool You?

Magic and Illusion has been a popular art form for hundreds of years. It's a love/hate relationship. Audiences love to be fooled, but also don't like to as well. How can magic fool your mind when all your senses are telling your brain NOT to be deceived.

Here are some of the finer points of exactly how that happens:

  • Surprise. Magic and illusion is all about the element of surprise. You simply do not know what is coming, and therefore, when it arrives, it often fools you too. Think of it in these terms. If you are sitting in a quiet movie theater waiting for the film to start and someone in the back of the theater yelled really loudly, your instinct to immediately turn around and see who shouted that out is powerful. It's a natural reflex. Magic is a series of surprises that you cannot help but react instinctively to.


  • Choregraphy. Well choreographed illusions lead you down a path of belief and logic. Your brain naturally fills in empty spots with assumptions. As a magician, performing the effect, we do our best to understand what those assumptions will be and continue to allow you to convince yourself what you are seeing is real and true. A great magic illusion has many more ingredients, but this one forms the foundation of creating a amazing effect that fools not only the eyes, but the brain too.


  • Misdirection. Lot's of obvious thought about this mis-used word misdirection. Does it mean you are looking in the place the magician wants you to look? Or does it mean you are looking somewhere he does not want you to look. Both actually. But it's not that simple. Good misdirection is designed to fool the mind more than the eye. The hand in NOT quicker than the eye as myth has you believe. But if your brain interprets that the magician's hand is naturally empty because of certain factors such as, the relaxed manner, not cramped, not awkward looking and so forth, then naturally your brain tells you "his hand is empty." But imagine his hand is actually hiding something. The magician then has quite the advantage over you, as far as, your acquired knowledge. When an object is then produced, you are fooled because you were certain his hand was empty.


  • Attitude. The disposition and attitude of the magician goes a long way in making you either feel at ease or feel as if something is "fishy." You may not be able to put your finger on what is making you feel this way, as it may be something intangible, but you know not everything is really what it seems. You also do not necessarily believe the story he is telling. If a magician is to be successful at fooling you with an illusion, his/her approach and attitude must relay a sense of rationality. If this approach is undertaken with great thought as to what the demeanor of the magician is and what he or she is trying to tell you in the story of the illusion, then it will be a difficult task for you NOT to be fooled.


  • Human Nature. We tend to believe what we are told. Marketing gurus know this and sprinkle the truth with the lie in their marketing campaigns when they are trying to sell you a product or service. Magicians are no different. We sometimes tell you the truth, we often lie and unfortunately for you, you do not know when we are doing either, therefore, human nature is to lean toward believing all of it. Human nature is a deep well of information that we have only tapped the surface of understanding, but this one factor is something that magicians try to learn more and more about so that we can fool you even more thoroughly with our magic and illusions.


Overall, magic is not logical. It is not nice and tidy. Neat and in order. We mix things up. We are often ten steps ahead of you and what you know at that moment. If the element of surprise isn't enough, we throw in other techniques and human psychological distractions to help us achieve our success of fooling you with a trick.

As a magician, the battle is not fooling our audiences, but entertaining them with something that will fool them. There is an enormous difference between those two qualities. 

Read a great article about this topic published in the November/December 2010 Scientific American Magazine here.

Wishing you all a magical life.