On Magic, Meaning and Interpretation

I was never one of those kids who had to have a magic set, who worked endlessly to master some arcane sleight of hand. I enjoy seeing magic tricks, but I’ve never really obsessed about them. The Boston Globe has this article up that suggests maybe I should be paying more attention to those conjurors.

It’s pretty much common knowledge that magic is at least 90% misdirection. As the article points out, “A great deal of the success of a piece of magic is simply getting the audience’s attention and sending it to the wrong place.” The magician’s recognition that “human perception is a jury-rigged apparatus, full of gaps and easily manipulated” is starting to become a subject of legitimate scientific study. Some other ways the scientists in the article describe human cognition include “flashlight beam sweeping a twilit landscape” and “intelligent hallucination.”

We know that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dream’t of in our philosophy. But when it comes to first-hand experience we have a very literal blind spot. I’m fascinated by the experiments in which people watching a basketball game don’t notice a woman dressed in a gorilla suit, or people giving directions don’t catch when the person they are addressing leaves and another takes his place. Here’s another example. The whole video is worth watching, but follow along with the Keith Barry though the opening demonstration. See how long it takes you to figure it out. I eventually had to start from the end and work backward.

The “intelligent hallucination” resonates with me. We know instinctively to look for misdirection in art. Whether reading popular fiction, browsing an art gallery, or watching a movie, we create meaning by processing the available information into an individualized interpretation.  It turns out that we do the same for day-to-day life. This way of processing visual information allows us to “create a remarkably rich image of our environment despite the fact that our two optic nerves have roughly the resolution of cell-phone cameras.”

What ties all this together is expectation. In the physical act of seeing, we take in a few bits and fill in with an overlay of what we have come to expect through experience. Thus, “we are especially vulnerable to someone who knows our expectations and can manipulate them, someone like a magician.” Or a writer. The artist knows we expect something and plays those expectations like an instrument. It looks like truth really isn’t any stranger than fiction – it all works the same way.

I’ve never been overly fascinated with magic, but this article makes me want to take another look. I guess there has always been a link between writers and other sorts of conjurors. The Boston Globe article opens with a story of how Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, a 19th century magician used his craft to demoralize the enemies of France. The article calls this “the only documented instance, at least since antiquity, in which a conjurer changed the course of world affairs.” But knowing what we know about the interpretation of both fiction and realiy, I think we can broaden our definition of conjuror just a little bit. As such, I think that such conjurors as Salman Rusdie, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn and quite a few others have had some stake in the course of world affairs.


One Response to “On Magic, Meaning and Interpretation”

  1. Katie Says:

    Just wondering if you had heard that Solzhenitsyn died. I heard about it on NPR the other night.

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