Have you ever been astonished by a magician's trick, and then tried to work out how they did it? Maybe, in the cold light of day, you found yourself wondering why it was so easy for them to fool you!
If so, then you've done more than just try to solve a particular bit of stagecraft. You've taken a step toward understanding some of the mysteries of the human brain itself – in the company of an expert.
It may be carefully concealed, but the psychology of learning is an essential aspect of the magician's art. It's more important than their props, their assistants, even the physical skills they develop over decades. A sharp understanding of thinking and learning is crucial to every trick they do.
So we shouldn't be surprised that psychologists are now probing beyond the smoke and mirrors, to "learn about learning" from these masters of magic and the human mind.
In the process, they're revealing secrets that can help us all to use our brains better, and showing how we can add an extra bit of sparkle to everything we do.
Even simple conjuring tricks can teach us about thinking and learning. Here's one of my favorites.
I show you the Ace of Spades and place it on the top of my deck of cards. I explain that scientists believe the design of the Ace of Spades makes it behave oddly, and that we're going to put this theory to the test.
Then I lift the top card again and clearly place it on the bottom of the deck.
The Ace of Spades, I say, can sometimes defy gravity. I click my fingers, turn over the deck – and show you that the bottom card is no longer the Ace of Spades.
And when I check the top card… there's the Ace of Spades again, mysteriously risen from the bottom to the top!
Yes, I'll tell you how I did it shortly, and you can learn this effect, too. But first, let me explain why tricks like this are helping to advance the psychology of learning itself.
As long ago as the 1800s, pioneers of psychology were using magic in their work. They'd realized that, for centuries, magicians had been using psychology to control people's thinking. They decided it was worth discovering how.
Magic has been a rich resource for research ever since. Magicians alter visual processing with optical illusions. They use false logic to affect volunteers' decision-making. Even the most natural-looking movement of a hand can have a powerful psychological effect.
Sleight-of-hand experts know, for example, that our eyes look wherever they look. And they rely on the brain's instinct to watch moving objects (often missing more important things in the process). In many ways, they know our minds better than we do!
Recently, the research has gathered pace, and it's become more sophisticated. As scientist/magician Matthew L. Tompkins shows, in "The Spectacle of Illusion," psychologists are now using magic to understand more about processes such as observation, decision making, and belief forming.
And they're especially interested in what magicians have to teach us about how we think and learn.
A Frontiers in Psychology article highlighted four principles that are particularly relevant for all the learning we need – and want – to do. Let's look at them in turn, along with ways that you can use these secrets of the magicians to your advantage.
Most of the time, magicians need everything they do to seem perfectly normal. You don't notice the coin hidden in their palm, or the watch they put in their pocket when they're reaching in for their phone, because their practiced movements are fluid and natural.
Of course, the trick usually ends with something very unnatural happening. That certainly gets your attention and sticks in your memory!
We can use this principle when we're learning. Banish boring, forgettable notes, and instead make them unusual and eye-catching. Use imaginative memory techniques, based on extraordinary images and ideas.
And when you want others to remember what you write or say, that's also a good time to include a few surprising, extraordinary touches, for attention, engagement, and lasting impact.
Despite being known for confusing us, magicians actually work very hard to be clear and precise. If you're going to be amazed that your card has changed, for example, you need to recall what it was in the first place!
Magicians go to great pains to use their words and actions to guide you through what's happening, to understand it (their version of it, at least!), and to remember it. Much of Harry Houdini's act involved him explaining himself and his plans to the crowd in intricate detail.
You can benefit from this approach, too, by investing time in understanding and simplifying any material you need to learn. And when you're presenting information to others, check it's well organized, sensibly paced, and expressed in a way that's crystal clear.
Magicians know how to control what you focus on. They get you to look at certain things, and to overlook others.
When they point, we can’t help but look that way. If they wheel on a prop from stage left, we'll likely miss what's happening stage right.
And a magician's words can also be remarkably diverting. When they describe what's happening, vividly and with confidence, it can be a struggle to focus on the reality before our eyes. For instance, a skilled magician can easily count out five $50 notes, when he's actually holding two (or 20)!
So don't try to learn when you're unfocused. Be alert to distractions, and do your best to remove them. And remember that others won't properly understand and remember what you're telling them if their focus is elsewhere.
Magicians need us to infer certain key details – and to get them wrong. The hand holding the coin goes into the pocket and comes out looking empty, so the coin's now in the pocket, right? The matchbox rattles, so surely it must be full of matches?
Magicians lead us to believe we've got reliable information from our senses, then show us just how bad our perceptions can be.
In a recent study, led by researchers from the University of Oxford, volunteers were shown films of a magician making objects vanish. In the final video, the magician pretended to show an object – which then "vanished." And, despite there being nothing there to vanish, 32 percent of viewers said they were sure they'd seen it before it disappeared!
So, question your assumptions, and challenge your expectations, to keep yourself open to possibilities – and less likely to be mistaken, or even fooled.
Most magic tricks have a very simple explanation. In the one I showed you earlier, the secret move happened at the very start. I simply held two cards together, as if there was just one.
You saw the Ace of Spades, but you didn't see the card behind it.
I acted naturally, putting both cards, as one, onto the deck, so that the Ace of Spades was actually the second card from the top. When I repeated its name, that helped you remember it. And I clearly explained everything else I did from then on.
I got you to infer that the Ace was now on the bottom of the deck. There was some pseudoscience about gravity to distract your thinking, and edge you toward believing the impossible. I even clicked my fingers to disrupt your focus and break your train of thought.
Finally, I recapped what had happened, and why it was magical – helping to create a lasting memory of a mini miracle!
It's with tricks like this that magicians take control – briefly – of the way we experience, understand and remember events. The rest of the time, we can copy some of their best psychological tricks, and start thinking and learning better.
We need to do everything we can to focus. Avoid assumptions. Question all the information we receive. Stay open to a range of possible explanations – however naturally and confidently someone might be telling us the way things "are."
Magicians show us the impact of communicating with clarity, to help others follow our train of thought and remember our message.
And they can even inspire us to find our own techniques for amusing and amazing the people around us.
That way, we can use the psychology of learning to give more of our interactions that delightful, magical touch!
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You know, this article has changed my views both on the illusionists and on the learning process. I've never even thought about it in this way. Thank you for such a fascinating article.
And the thought came to me that it would be nice to use these techniques by teachers on students. I wonder if there are such experiments and studies as you think?
I also found the article fascinating James. We can learn in so many different ways so why not in these subtle almost magical ways too!
Very insightful article. It is nice to read about magic from an outsider's perspective. Tools like misdirection, pacing and conditioning are certainly the backbone of this Art. But in all fairness, I have only been a magician for 37 years, so I may be wrong. Lol.
Thanks Marc, it's great to hear from someone in the industry ... wow, 37 years! Hope you enjoy the fun and magic you create for others!