Magical Realism

The rules of perception are susceptible to exploitation. Psychologists have known for decades that the “reality” of the world does not map directly onto the reality that is perceived. Often, this mismatch is unintentional (like the feeling of moving backward when seated in a stationary car next to a car that is moving forward). These quirks of perception, some of which are adaptive to help us tune out irrelevant information, can be manipulated. Not that we always mind.

Magic plays with our (mis)perception of the world, in a way that is both artful and entertaining. But for Teller, of the magic duo Penn and Teller, magic serves as a form of science experiment. What variables can be tweaked to produce the desired effect? The stage as psychology lab metaphor is one he exploits in an article for Smithsonian Magazine. And, despite his naivete about the psychology jargon, the metaphor is apt. Neuroscientists are only just discovering the principles of and brain regions that support what magicians have known for years, claims Teller. Psychologists demonstrate change blindness (the error in detecting a phenomenon that changes in front of your face but outside your awareness); magicians employ misdirection. Psychologists research cognitive dissonance (people invent reasons for claims to bring their mental states in line with reality); Teller explains the craftiness of allowing audience members to inspect “magical” instruments.

A recent piece in Esquire covers some of Teller’s more well-known tricks as well as a recent scandal of trick-stealing in which he has become embroiled. The remarkable thing about Teller’s tricks is their starkness. The centerpiece of the article is a trick called “Shadows” in which a shadow of a rose is sliced by a shadow of a knife. In front of the shadows is a real rose, which is sliced as if by the same stroke as the shadow. The trick is so stripped-down, so naked that one gets the sense that how the trick is done must be in plain sight, if only one knew what to look for.

The real “tricks” of magic, although perhaps undetectable, usually are noticeable as tricks. That flash of light, the magician’s patter, the literal smoke and mirrors – these reveal themselves to be the misdirection that they are, even if we can’t prove it with our own visual evidence. From a psychologists’ standpoint, Teller’s tricks are astounding because they forego the flashiness and force the audience to confront what they believe compared to what they perceive.

The other tricks covered in the article, and the author’s brilliant take on the scandal revealed at the end of the article, point out something else about Teller’s approach to magic which served, for me, to change the way I define what is magical. In perception research, theorists talk about bottom-up versus top-down processes. Bottom-up information, the raw sensory information out there in the world, grabs attention in the form of loud noises and flashes of light. Top-down information, the brain’s resources like memory or context, guides perception through previous experience or the exertion of will. Magic can play with either of these two processes, and the way they interact. Magicians like Teller, who expand the repertoire of human tendencies they exploit (I won’t spoil the article by divulging which), can help us achieve greater conscious access to our own limitations in perceiving the world.