Experiencing the Impossible : The Science of Magic

Experiencing the Impossible : The Science of Magic
by Gustav Kuhn

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
296 pp., illus. 43 b/w. Trade, $27.95
ISBN: 9780262039468.

Reviewed by
Brian Reffin Smith
December 2019

There are increasing numbers of books, articles, and even papers about magic, many of them to do with human psychology rather than technical tricks and tips. However, most also include at least a smattering of the latter because just as we expect rabbits to emerge from hats, or something similar, even in the most theoretical, self-referential and meta-magical shows (Derren Brown, for example), we also want discourse about our experience of magic to include some nitty gritty. This book by a psychologist-magician provides just the right mix.

Tricks are mostly described and not often, though sometimes, explained. Robert-Houdin's work for the French government, intended to persuade recalcitrant Algerians of the French state's might, included catching a bullet between his teeth and the 'heavy box'. This latter, we can guess, involves an electro-magnet making the box suddenly impossible to lift and is explained. As is the shriek and flight of the person invited to lift it, who charmingly received a heavy electric shock through the box's metal handles. But how to catch a bullet? We are not enlightened. The tricks of David Copperfield are mentioned, not explained. There are however plenty of online demystifications. Spoiler alert: An audience and TV cameras float on a tethered ocean platform at night, facing the floodlit Statue of Liberty over which a helicopter circles. Lighting towers on the platform shine moving searchlights on the statue. A large curtain on the platform then blocks the audience's view. After much rigmarole the curtains open. The statue has disappeared! Well, no it hasn't: The platform, TV cameras, and audience have turned round a little on the water so that they are no longer facing the statue, now blocked from view by the platform's huge lighting towers. The helicopter has moved a bit, too, over a neighbouring empty space through which the searchlights pass showing that there is indeed nothing there. Simple when you know how, and have millions of dollars, eh? Many magicians, not at all jealous of course, deride the basic simplicity of Copperfield's tricks, their scale enhanced by vast sums of money. But as Gustav Kuhn points out here, size matters: some impossible things are more impossible than others. Making a coin disappear is seen as plausibly impossible; making an elephant disappear, more impossible than that.

But of course all magic is disappointing when you know how. Increasingly, its finer exponents play with this, sometimes on multiple levels. You thought you knew how it was done, but you didn't. But now you see it! Wrong, wrong. Cue delighted applause. With magical actions we want to have our cake and eat it too, trying desperately to catch him or her out, but demanding to be fooled. Kuhn makes the nice point that we have to suspend disbelief to appreciate a magician flying, without visible cables, but that if we truly believed humans could fly, it wouldn't work as magic anymore. If you believe in ESP, mind reading isn't magic, which, as Penn of he & Teller has said, involves the unwilling suspension of disbelief. You can't do this with other arts, really. Theatre isn't like that (I have seen magic performed as part of a drama, and that's really confusing). With words, perhaps only a James Joyce in literature, Marx Brothers or a Stewart Lee in comedy, turning apparent 'wrongness', futility or failure into great success, again and again. Magic and comedy are often very closely related, it would seem. A man walks into a bar — Ouch! Now you see it, now you don't. A French nun, a Bulgarian politician, a giraffe and Albert Einstein walk into another bar. The barman says, "What's this, a joke?." Misdirection. And while I was telling you meta-jokes you felt me fiddling with your iPhone and clamped your hand on it, which by no means prevented my accomplice from replacing the dog on your lead with a different one. Look, here's a photo of the sweet new dog. On your iPhone. Which your own dog is holding. And there must somewhere be a magician who has pulled a hat out of a rabbit.

Experiencing the Impossible is divided into 10 chapters and a conclusion. There are copious, useful notes and, thank heavens, an index, so often lacking. The chapter headings are: What is magic?, How to create magic, The belief in real magic, The gaps in out conscious experience, Seeing is believing, Memory illusions, Mind control and the magician's force, Mind control through hypnosis, Applied magic, and How to advance the magic endeavor. Hence, the excellent book's likely general interest. I think the best way to review it is to mention a related issue, slightly sideways from magic, from several chapters, leaving the actual magical content for the reader to discover.

Thus, in the first chapter there is an interesting description of fMRI showing that brain areas associated with the monitoring and resolution of conflict lit up when participants watched videos of tricks, and Piaget's 'object permanency' alluded to (we know that something passing behind a screen is still there - though in a magic show we believe it at our peril). In the next, we read that people want pseudo-explanations of events, which they will believe even if there is no evidence or if they are impossible. Reading your body language lets me, an expert in these things, know which card you have chosen (no, it doesn't; I forced you to choose it). Darren Brown uses subliminal messages to make people draw images. No, it's cleverer (simpler) than that.

I put a postage stamp in a box. I mutter a spell, open the box and the stamp is now in two halves. Later, it reassembles itself. I ask if I can repeat the trick with people's credit cards. Sure, no problem, there are no such things as working spells. But if I repeat the trick elsewhere without a spell, and instead press a button on a device, totally unconnected with the magic box, and when I press it lights flash and a buzzer sounds, they won't let me anywhere near their credit card even though they can't tell me how the trick worked. The pseudo explanation is enough to at least half convince them. If A and B happen, we need to believe that A causes B. Politicians then come up with the pseudo-explanations. You are poor. Some immigrants have come to your country. Hey presto. (And almost all magic words are performative, spells, orders that 'make' things happen: abracadabra is a command. Magic, I think, is deeply authoritarian, though it pretends to be benign, inclusive, full of choices. Democratic, even. You chose the Joker!).

In dealing with misdirection and distraction, I like the author's story about setting up eye-tracking equipment in a student bar (the students were to be observed in situ as they watched tricks). The problem was that the students were indeed distracted: from the magic, by the interesting equipment. His treatment of attentional misdirection is fascinating in its cognitive detail. People just won't see things if they are attending to other things, be they ever so obvious to us, reading about it. But remember: We are wise to this stuff nowadays. I wave my right hand distractingly around but you, knowing about magic, strain to look at my left. Which I have, however, anticipated, and the trickery is done elsewhere.

And so on. Kuhn is actually attempting the (probably impossible, he says) creation of a framework that explains how all magic works. And of course it's not really about sleight of hand or mirrors but rather about our needs, beliefs, psychological tendencies, eager willingness to be misdirected, and knowledge (we think) about the world. Fascinating. Also rather worrying.

In the section on deception in the real world, Kuhn tells the story of British magician Jasper Maskelyne, who helped the Allies during the North African Campaign of World War II. The most interesting aspect is not that he helped by disguising real things and creating false ones, such as a tank battalion, but that the military may have exaggerated his role. If the enemy knew that a brilliant magician was up to his tricks, they might expect, or distrust, anything at all! He didn't need to do anything to have a destabilising effect. In much magic, what is not, is as important as what is. What has not happened, as what has. There is a bar trick I do with playing cards or a signed beermat, much to the egregious boredom of those who have seen it many times before. It involves someone taking a card from a pack or pile, which of course I will find later, perhaps stuck to the wall or in the victim's pocket. It has nothing to do with the victim's card though to which nothing happens at all, and everything to do with the rest of them, the unchosen ones. Should one spell it out? It is not always the card, the rabbit, the Great Wall of China or a president who has changed. Sometimes it's the audience, the unchosen ones. We were looking in the wrong place.

Kuhn mentions the CIA's part-homicidal, part-amusing attempts to magically win the Cold War. The declassified 1950s manual has now been published and is well worth a read. It can be found online at https://archive.org/details/cia-manual-trickery-deception-2009. I do not know if the 4" by 1" (10 x 2.5 cm) CIA Rectal Suppository Escape and Evasion Kit is still available. The instructions for how women involved in patriotic trickery should behave are illuminating, in one way or another. There are diagrammes showing men how to look dumb. Not for women though, because "men are never astonished when a woman doesn't know something".

Anyway, back to the book in hand. Magic is clearly a wonderful mirror, or prism, through which to learn about our formidable powers for (especially self-) deception. It seems clear, especially in these appalling times, that a bit of demystification is in order. Whether things are stolen from us whilst we believe we are getting gifts, or ideas are planted that we cling to, believing that we always had them or lies are represented as truths through sleight of hand, power of technology or pseudo-explanation, we need to become the spoilsports who rush the stage to smash the mirrors, blow away the smoke and rip open the curtains. The sadness probably being that all of that will have been a distraction, the real jiggery-pokery lying somewhere else. If one learns anything from this captivating book, it is to never, ever trust your first or even second detective work. You think you've seen how it was done, clever you. But note the magician's professional smile, the politician's sneer. We rush to attack the wrong targets, poke in the wrong places. The Statue of Liberty disappears, and the foundations upon which it rested; but we were moved, not the copper sculpture. We applaud. The show must go on.