This warm, engaging performer weaves a very special spell of wonder as first a flute disintegrates into silver dust the moment it touches his lips. Coins appear mysteriously at his fingertips, to be dropped melodically upon what resembles a vertical xylophone, down which they tinkle with a distinctive melody of their own, faster and faster until his hands are overflowing. The whole sequence has that Cartier stamp of dazzle and class. Nielsen’s speciality, however, is his floating violin, rightly considered to be one of the most beautiful illusions in magic...Seldom has a magician endowed a supposedly inanimate object with such telling personality.
The price is wrong, James.
One of the highlights of Mac King's act is his "method" for making cards disappear from the hands of a spectator on one side of the stage, reappearing in the hands of someone on the other side of the stage. He simply uses his relatively ineffective "cloak of invisibility," of course! Well, Mac's wildest dreams may be coming true sooner than anticipated. This month, the highly respected journal Nature reported on the work of a group of scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who have described a theoretical method for creating a cloak of invisibility. I'm not well-versed in physics, so I can't make much sense of the paper (found here), but the implications of such a tool for magicians are incredible!
Here's a CNN report about the technology:
Update: Come to think of it, magicians have been employing a similar technology for hundreds of years, now. Here's Omar Pasha:
Parker, Buckley, and Dagnall (2009) showed participants a series of pictures accompanied by a narrative. They followed this up by asking them a number of misleading questions about the specifics of the story. Participants were then directed to move their eyes either laterally, vertically, or not at all. The authors found that lateral eye movements led to better memory for the contents of the pictures and narrative. In addition, participants who moved their eyes from side to side were less apt to adopt the misinformation elements into their recollections.
Lyle, K. B., Logan, J. M., & Roediger III, H. L. (2008). Eye movements enhance memory for individuals who are strongly right-handed and harm it for individuals who are not. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 515-520. Link
Parker, A., Buckley, S., & Dagnall, N. (2009). Reduced misinformation effects following saccadic bilateral eye movements. Brain and Cognition, 69, 89-97. Link
While planning for my talk at SkeptiCamp later this month, I discovered a recent special issue of the journal Cortex dedicated to studies of paranormal beliefs. One article in the issue that caught my attention looked at the correlation between body and brain asymmetry and belief in the paranormal. Günter Schulter and Ilona Papousek at the University of Graz, in Austria, found that asymmetries between finger lengths of the two hands were associated with greater belief in paranormal phenomena.
I'm always intrigued by these types of findings, but they often lead only to more questions. Many times, authors of this type of work will argue that the bodily asymmetry is suggestive of an underlying brain asymmetry as well (kudos to Schulter and Papousek for staying away from this line of reasoning). This is a problematic argument. Since this study is correlational, there could easily (and likely) be a third variable at play. For example, people whose faces are more symmetrical are perceived to be more beautiful (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady, & Sumich, 1998). We all know that beautiful people are treated differently in our society, and social rejection seems likely to be correlated with magical thinking, paranormal belief, and religiosity. So, this relationship between physique and belief could have absolutely nothing to do with brain structure at all. One thing we do know, though, is that symmetrical people smell better!
There are many other interesting articles in the special issue. Be sure to check it out here.
Rhodes, G., Proffitt, F., Grady, J. M., & Sumich, A. (1998). Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5, 659-669. Link
Schulter, G. & Papousek, I. (2008). Believing in paranormal phenomena: Relations to asymmetry of body and brain. Cortex, 44, 1326-1335.
Later this month (on March 28th, to be exact), I'll be taking part in SkeptiCamp Phoenix 2009. SkeptiCamp "focuses on topics of interest to skeptics, including science, critical thinking and skeptical inquiry," and all of the presentations are given by camp attendees. So far, the schedule includes talks on academic freedom and the intelligent design movement, how to be a happy skeptic, and critical thinking for dummies (among others). I'll be giving a talk entitled, "Methods of the Pseudo-Psychic." This promises to be a really interesting and entertaining day. There are still a lot of open seats, so I suggest you sign up! Here's the information:
When: 10:00am Saturday, March 28th, 2009
Where: Arizona State University, Discovery Building Rm. 246 (map)
More info here.
Bongo was the first experienced magician publicly to challenge the Israeli-born showman Uri Geller over his supposed psychic powers. Vowing to "put my money where my mouth is", Bongo made an appearance on the Blue Peter programme aiming to recreate Geller's spoon-bending and mind-reading experiments in front of a studio audience using only conventional magic techniques.R.I.P., Ali.
The experiment was a muted success – "He didn't break the fork, he only bent it," complained the metallurgist Alistair Brown – but Bongo emerged from the episode as a likeable figure, self-deprecating and generous with his expertise. He had been taken to Geller's hotel by a Daily Mail journalist the previous day in an attempt to force Geller into "proving" his abilities before an expert. The Israeli psychic ordered him out of the building with the words: "I have no time for magicians! What do they know about my powers?"
Beatty, J. (1982). Task-evoked pupillary responses, processing load, and the structure of processing resources. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 276-292.
Kuhn, G. & Land, M. F. (2006). There's more to magic than meets the eye. Current Biology, 16, R950-R951.
Lyle, K. B., Logan, J. M., & Roediger III, H. L. (2008). Eye movements enhance memory for individuals who are strongly right-handed and harm it for individuals who are not. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 515-520.
Milgram, S., Bickman, L., & Berkowitz, L. (1969). Note on the drawing power of crowds of different size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 79-82.
Ricciardelli, P., Bricolo, E., Aglioti, S. M., & Chelazzi, L. (2002). My eyes want to look where your eyes are looking: Exploring the tendency to imitate another individual's gaze. Neuroreport, 13, 2259-2264.
Tomasello, M., Hare, B., Lehmann, H., & Call, J. (2007). Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: The cooperative eye hypothesis. Journal of Human Evolution, 52, 314-320.
In 1894, Binet wrote a manuscript entitled "Psychology of Prestidigitation" in which he foreshadowed many pieces of current research, including the role of joint attention in magic (which I'll discuss in a subsequent post) and the exploitation of inattentional blindness and perceptual set. He also pointed to a problem that researchers are still having a difficult time tackling: the reduction problem. Binet said:
The illusion of each trick is not merely the result of one single cause, but of many, so insignificant that to perceive them would be quite as difficult as to count with the naked eye the grains of sand on the seashore.
Indeed, the methods of magicians are often multi-modal, disallowing reduction in the lab. If any piece of the method is removed, the illusion fails. Oftentimes, we see this with video footage of magic. Social cues to attention are weakened when magic isn't performed live, so consequently, misdirection often fails on video. Binet recognized this phenomenon in his footage of Raynaly, noting:
We have not for one moment the impression that the exchange has actually been made...If the photographic proof destroys so completely the illusion, it is because it does away with all the adjuncts necessary for the illusion which we have enumerated: The rapidity of the trick, the little discourse given by the artist, the maneuvers which cause a diversion or a diminution of attention, etc.
Binet, A. (1894). Psychology of prestidigitation. Smithsonian Report for 1894 (pp. 555-571). Government Printing Office. Link
Wiseman, R. (2005, July 27). Trick and treat. Daily Telegraph. Link
A little about me: I'm a 3rd year graduate student in cognitive psychology at Arizona State University and a part-time professional magician with 20 years of experience. Although my primary area of research is in the processes underlying handwritten word recognition, I've also lectured on topics having to do with psychology and magic. To whet your whistle, here's a brief "lighting" talk I gave at the Ignite Phoenix event on the application of priming to magic. Enjoy!
Hagmann, P., Cammoun, L., Gigandet, X., Meuli, R., Honey, C. J., Wedeen, V. J., & Sporns, O. (2008). Mapping the structural core of human cerebral cortex. PLoS Biology, 7, e159.
Kay, A. C., Wheeler, S. C., Bargh, J. A., & Ross, L. (2004). Material priming: The influence of mundane physical objects on situational construal and competitive behavioral choice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 95, 83-96.
RATS ad: Subliminal conspiracy? (2000, September 13). BBC News. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk.
Weinberger, J. & Westen, D. (2008). RATS, we should have used Clinton: Subliminal priming in political campaigns. Political Psychology, 29, 631-651.