A timely tool to understand mind manipulation

Gustav Kuhn and Matthew Tompkins on 'Smoke and mirrors: The psychology of magic', an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

For centuries, magicians have been refining methods for creating powerful illusory experiences in the minds of their audiences. And recently, there has been a significant spike in scientific interest in magic, with researchers increasingly turning to magic methods to develop new experimental techniques to investigate human perception, memory, and reasoning. Since the turn of the century, the body of scientific literature on magic tricks has more than quadrupled. 

Magic can be conceptualised as a process for generating cognitive conflicts between the things we experience (e.g. a rabbit appears from a hat an empty hat) and the things we believe to be possible (objects, let alone rabbits, should not simply appear from nowhere). Historically, psychologists and magicians have not been the only people to adapt magic trick style methods for their purposes. The same methods that might be used for entertainment or scientific investigation have sometimes been used to create false impressions of paranormal or miraculous powers. Things can get much weirder when that cognitive conflict taps into things that are more personal and meaningful than fluffy bunnies: such as when mediums claim to produce messages from one’s loved ones, even when those loved ones are dead. 

The 19th and the early 20th centuries featured dramatic technological and scientific developments that arguably set the stage for dramatically alternative belief systems, such as spiritualism. Seances and other mediumistic demonstrations became highly popular. Many sceptics argued that these demonstrations were actually deceptions, based on the same kind of illusions as magic tricks. The first part of the Wellcome exhibition examines the role of the medium, and it focuses on the researchers who investigated mediumistic phenomena, and how magicians contributed to this process. Many magicians, then and now, pride themselves as being honest deceivers, and prominent magicians (e.g. Harry Houdini and James Randi) have played important roles in debunking supernatural claims. The exhibition displays beautiful props and apparatus that magicians used to replicate some of the spiritualist phenomena, as well as showcasing some research of early psychical investigators. 

As spiritualism was emerging as a cultural movement, experimental psychology was developing as a scientific discipline, and the exhibition also shows how some aspects of contemporary psychological research methods can actually be traced back to early psychical research. Professor Chris French explains how modern methods like double-blind protocols can be traced to early psychical research. Viewers are invited to consider the work of Richard Hodgson and S. J. Davey who, in the 1880s, invited people to attend a fake séances and then asked them to provide written testimonies of what they had witnessed. Their research showed that many people often misremembered key aspects of the events – not did only failed to notice or remember details, but sometimes even ‘remembering’ events that had never actually happened. This pioneering study into anomalistic experiences represents one the earliest published papers on false memory and eye witness testimony, and yet it has been largely forgotten by many contemporary psychologists.   

The next section explores misdirection, a key principle that magicians use to manipulate your conscious experiences. Using modern-day laboratory methods, such as eye tracking, scientists have been exploring the psychological mechanisms that underpin these deceptive principles, and what they reveal about our cognitive blind-spots and biases. In a series of videos, presented on large screens, visitors learn about how these techniques can variously influence their attention, perception, and reasoning.

The final section of the exhibition shines its light on a world where the boundaries between illusion and reality become rather blurred.  Mentalism is a form of magic where magicians read your mind and these techniques are often exploited by fraudulent psychics.  Psychologist Rob Bailey explains how cold reading can be used to imply you know more about a person than you actually do. Professor Christine Mohr talks about how current psychological research has been examining the impact that (apparent) psychic experiences can have on people’s beliefs, and viewers get to see how mentalism principles are used to stage a fake demonstration of mediumship.  Visitors also learn more about how magic and suggestion can be used to apparently insert thoughts into people’s mind, and Jay Olson, whose research involves integrating magic methods with placebo effects, explains how these deceptive principles can be used in a modern clinical context.  

The exhibition, curated by A.R. Hopwood and Honor Beddard, beautifully illustrates that we are much more susceptible to trickery and deception than we think. Perhaps because out cognitive mechanisms can be much weirder than we tend to imagine. As the world becomes increasingly preoccupied with post-truth problems (How big were those crowds? What did that bus say?), magic offers a powerful tool to explore the ease by which our minds can be manipulated.

- The exhibition runs until 15 September. There are live performances throughout, with dates currently announced until 25 May.

Gustav Kuhn is a Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

[email protected] 

His new book is out now:  

Kuhn, G. (2019). Experiencing the impossible: The science of magic. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Read more from Gustav Kuhn in our April cover feature.

Matthew L. Tompkins is an an experimental psychologist and a magician who recently obtained a DPhil in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford and is a member of The Magic Circle. He currently works as a freelance writer. His new book, which was written to accompany the 'Smoke and mirrors' exhibition, is out now:  
Tompkins. M. L. (2019). The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal & the complicity of the mindLondon: Thames & Hudson. 

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