Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Review: Experiencing the Impossible

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Kuhn, Gustav. Experiencing the Impossible. MIT Press. 2019. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-262-03946-8

Author note: I had a presentation proposal accepted for the 2019 Science of Magic Association conference, for which author Gustav Kuhn serves as a committee member. The committee made its decision before I wrote this review.

Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic by Gustav Kuhn, explores the burgeoning field of scientific analysis of magic and its performance. Kuhn is a Reader (rank above Senior Lecturer but below Professor) in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and a member of The Magic Circle.

The science of magic is a relatively new field, but it’s one that lends itself to several different types of research. One way to examine how individuals react to (and, more importantly, interact with) magic is to ask their opinions about what they just saw. In one study, participants were shown a video of a magician making a helicopter disappear and were then asked whether they wanted to see a video showing another trick or to one explaining how the trick was done.

You might be surprised to know that only 40% of the participants said they wanted to know how the trick was done. I personally take that result as a good sign…it means that if a typical person watches a routine on video with no connection to the performer, they will want an explanation less than half the time. If a performer can create an emotional bond with their audience, I believe that percentage will move even more in the performer’s favor.

Kuhn also points to arguments challenging whether audiences believe what they’re seeing is real. In his discussion, he quotes Bucknell University instructor Jason Leddington as arguing that “the audience should actively disbelieve that what they are apparently witnessing is possible.” A magical experience, then, only occurs when it appears that a law of nature is being violated. Similarly, Darwin Ortiz notes in Strong Magic that there is a struggle between our “intellectual belief” and “emotional belief”. We know that what we’re seeing isn’t real, but we want it to be so.

Throughout the rest of Experiencing the Impossible, Kuhn relates other aspects of the scientific examination of stage magic, with chapters discussing the role of processes including memory, visual perception, and the use of heuristics to reason about what you’re seeing. The latter topic draws on Daniel Kahneman’s description of System 1 and System 2 thinking from his book Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is the slower, logical, and more careful system where one considers available evidence and comes to a reasoned conclusion. System 2 is much faster, relies on shortcuts, and is easier to fool. The reason many of us lean on System 2 more than we should is that it is less effortful than thinking in depth.

Experiencing the Impossible is an excellent book that captures the state of research in a field of personal interest to me as both a performer and a fan of science. Kuhn’s choice of topics provides and outstanding basis for an initial foray into the science of magic and offers a solid platform for future research. Highly recommended.

Written by curtisfrye

April 11, 2019 at 8:18 pm

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