Whether it’s baffling card tricks or mind-boggling illusionist acts, I’m pretty sure we’ve all been astounded by seemingly ‘magical’ tricks performed right in front of our very eyes. While we know that there must be some rational explanation for it, we still often fail to see that the truth is hiding in plain sight. Why? Because successful magicians aren’t only very skilled performers and entertainers, but actually make clever use of basic psychological tricks to manipulate our minds and senses. The current fantastic (and free!) exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic at the Wellcome Collection sets out how mediums and magicians have used psychological devices to play tricks on their audiences for centuries.
How it all began: the rise of spiritualism
Do you know what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) had in common? They were not only both famous entertainers, but also prominent figures in the debate of the authenticity of spiritualism. But it might surprise you to learn which side of the debate they were both on. Because while the author who magicked up the rational detective Sherlock Holmes was an avid believer of the supernatural, it was the master of illusion who set out to debunk mediums and expose them as frauds.
In the days of Doyle and Houdini, there was a great interest and rising belief in spiritualism. As a result of devastating events such as the American Civil War and epidemics in the late 19th and early 20th century, death was omnipresent. Desperate to contact their deceased loved ones, people put their faith in mediums who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world. Starting with private séances, spiritualism evolved in popular and mass-attended events such as Victorian magicians who entertained hundreds of spectators who flocked to the entertainment halls.
In the exhibition you can see a number of posters advertising these events that attracted so many believers and curious minds. But more fascinating are the artefacts used by mediums at the time such as ouija boards and spirit trumpets that supposedly amplified the whispers of those soft-spoken spirits.
Magic is all in the eye of the beholder
While the exhibition starts off in the realms of spiritualism, explaining and debunking many famous séance tricks, it smoothly transitions into the world of science. And this is actually the most interesting part of the exhibition. Presented in a very accessible way, you get to learn in very short and simple videos how magicians manage to conjure up their convincing illusions. And you will be surprised at just how easily you can be tricked!
For example, did you know that what you see isn’t happening in real time? Although it’s negligible, our brains need a bit of time to register the world around us before they can send the signals to our eyes. And even though it’s so short, successful magicians make clever use of this delay and manipulate our senses into seeing things that aren’t true! When I learned this in the exhibition, this was such an eye-opener! (Pun intended.)
As was another video that shows how magicians manipulate another basic mechanism of the brain, i.e. predictability. The video shows how a magician throws a small ball in the air and catches it in his hand again. When he throws it up in the air for the third time, you can see the ball disappear in the air. Or do you? In fact, the magician never threw the ball in the air but insinuated he did. But having seen the action twice already, your brains are thinking they’re being clever and ‘help’ you by presenting you the third ball throw. It’s truly extraordinary to realise how easily our senses can be deceived!
I found this all so insightful, but also very worrying. Because what about the credibility of eyewitness stories? I’ve always had my doubts about this, especially in context of reopened cases when key eyewitnesses give crucial statements that could lead to life imprisonment.
All in all it’s an invigorating, entertaining and intriguing exhibition that leaves you with more questions than answers. It shows us how magic weaves its way into our lives we might never have even considered.