Hocus Pocus

Richard Wiseman on a new tool for teaching and outreach.

From flipped classrooms to student debates, public talks to podcasts, and online courses to social media, psychologists use many innovative ways to engage both students and the public. However, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most enduring and popular forms of communication has received very little attention.

Comics are highly visual, immersive and entertaining. Although primarily associated with superheroes and fantasy, science communicators have recently realised that comics could also be an effective way of disseminating information about physics, technology, medicine and mathematics. As a result, several studies have examined the impact of using comics to communicate science, and the results suggest that they are one of the most effective ways of engaging and motivating both students and the public (Farinella, 2018).

A few years ago I worked with comic-book illustrator Jordan Collver and writer Rik Worth to create some unusual optical illusions for my ‘Quirkology’ YouTube channel. Jordan and Rick specialise in using comics and graphics to communicate science, and I recently had the idea of us producing a psychology-based comic. They liked the idea and we began to think about how it might work.

Much of my research focuses on the psychology of conjuring and investigating seemingly paranormal phenomena from a skeptical viewpoint. These topics have wide appeal, and we decided to create a comic focusing on magic, mystery and the mind. Called ‘Hocus Pocus’, each issue will contain several strange but true stories about magicians, science, psychology and the paranormal. Perhaps most important of all, these stories will act as a vehicle to communicate key concepts, ideas and research in psychology. 

Our first issue is dedicated to mind reading. In one story, readers travel back in time to meet the pioneering parapsychologist, J.B. Rhine. Rhine carried out a large body of research into Extra-sensory Perception, and believed that his results supported the existence of psychic ability. In the story, readers join Rhine in his laboratory, find out about his controversial work, and discover how skeptics believe that some aspects of the studies were poorly designed, including ineffective controls and the suppression of negative results. 

In another story, readers meet a remarkable Victorian mind reader called Washington Irving Bishop, and discover how his seemingly inexplicable act was based on him being able to detect tiny unconscious movements known as ‘ideomotor action'. In the third and final story they encounter the 1920s conman and conjurer Alexander (billed as ‘The man who knows’), and learn about the psychology used to fake psychic readings.

Research shows that magic tricks can be used to help arouse curiosity (see, e.g., Wiseman & Watt, 2018, 2020) and so we were eager to make the comic as interactive as possible. As readers make their way through the comic, they receive a psychic reading from Alexander, have their extrasensory perception abilities examined by Rhine, and test Bishop’s amazing powers of deduction. Each of these interactive demonstrations is based on a psychological or mathematical principle, and so acts as an additional vehicle for learning and dissemination.

Finally, we have also produced a booklet of further information and sources for those wanting to use the comic for teaching or to delve deeper into the topic.

Although we are one of the first to produce a comic specifically designed to help communicate psychology, there is a surprising, and little-known, history of psychologists being involved with comics. For instance, in the 1940s, American psychologist William Moulton Marston helped to create the famous comic character, Wonder Woman (Lepore, 2015). Marston had previous worked at several Universities, and investigated the relationship between emotion and blood pressure, and also promoted the idea of using a polygraph as a tool for lie detection. Similarly, in the 1940s American child psychiatrist Lauretta Bender investigated whether comics might help children cope with trauma, arguing that they could provide a sense of hope, resilience, escapism, and protection (Bender & Lourie, 1941). Psychologist Patrick O'Connor has recently followed up on this notion, creating a database of comics containing psychological themes that may aid client-therapist interactions (http://www.comicspedia.net/database.html). Most recently, there has been an introductory textbook on psychology presented in comic form (Oppenheimer & Klein, 2017), Matteo Farinella’s ‘Neurocomic’ (2013), and a forthcoming graphic novel by Uta and Chris Frith describing the history of neuroscience.

Hocus Pocus was launched in early 2020, and has had a very good reception, with one reviewer describing it as ‘an utterly magical read’ and ‘one of the most inventive and gorgeous comics we have read this year’. There are several more issues on the way, and each will contain innovative ways of communicating psychology.
 Our main goals are to use this unique form of visual story-telling to bring psychology alive and encourage a critical curiosity about the paranormal. We hope that ‘Hocus Pocus’ will help those wanting to utilise innovative teaching methods in classrooms and lecture theatres, and reach new and diverse audiences among the public.

The first issue of ‘Hocus Pocus’ is available to download for free at www.hocuspocuscomic.com.

- Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. 

References 

Bender, L. & Lourie, R. S. (1941). The effect of comic books on the ideology of children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 11(3), 540–550. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1941.tb05840.x

Farinella, M. (2018). The potential of comics in science communication. Journal of Science Communication. 17. 10.22323/2.17010401.

Farinella, M. (2013). Neurocomic. Nobrow Ltd: London, UK.

Lepore, J. (2015). The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Scribe: London, UK.

Oppenheimer, D. & Klein, G. (2017). Psychology: The Comic Book Paperback. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, USA.

Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. 2018. Achieving the impossible: a review of magic-based interventions and their effects on wellbeing. PeerJ 6:e6081https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6081

Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. 2020. Conjuring cognition: a review of educational magic-based interventions. PeerJ 8:e8747 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.8747

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