Science - Page 47

don ’ t need to imagine this , because the lines already look as though they are different lengths ( yet they are not ; this is the Müller-Lyer illusion ). Similarly , in watching a performance of Peter Pan , seeing the wires holding the actor aloft doesn ’ t prevent you from enjoying the play : you can still make believe that he is flying . On the other hand , the whole point of David Copperfield ’ s flying illusion is that you should , in some sense , experience it as real . If it ’ s successful , you should not need to make believe that he is flying , for it should already appear as though he is ( which is why you ’ d better not see any wires !). 7
Finally , if the point of magic is to give us an experience as of something both possible and impossible , real and unreal , then it follows that magic aims to make us uncomfortable . After all , if you believe that vanishing a coin is impossible , yet — as far as you can tell — it just happened anyway , the result is a kind of cognitive dissonance . This yields two pressing questions . First , exactly what kind of cognitive dissonance is involved here ? What exactly is going on in the mind of someone apparently presented with something they know to be impossible ? Second , if magic performance aims to produce cognitive dissonance , why do people seek it out ? How is it possible to enjoy magic at all ? The rest of this article focuses on the first of these questions . I ’ ll conclude with a few thoughts about the second .
III . Cognitive Conflict in the Experience of Magic
What happens in the mind of someone taken in by a successful magic performance ? What is it like , cognitively , to experience the apparent presentation of an event that you know to be impossible ?
An idea widely endorsed by magicians is that the experience of magic essentially involves suspension of disbelief . But as Ortiz notes , this is a mistake ( 2011 : 25 ). Suspension of disbelief is what allows you to enjoy a performance of Peter Pan even though you see the wires , or to imagine that you are witnessing a swordfight in feudal Denmark rather than actors wielding painted wood in present-day New York . In other words , suspension of disbelief is what allows us to imaginatively engage with possibilities that we don ’ t experience as real . So , while suspension of disbelief is appropriate for fiction , it ’ s wholly irrelevant to magic .
Another way to put the problem with the idea that suspension of disbelief is essential to the experience of magic is that suspending disbelief in the impossible generally does not result in cognitive dissonance . That ’ s because there ’ s no conflict between imagining that Copperfield is flying and firmly believing that it ’ s impossible . So , if cognitive dissonance is integral to the experience of magic , then we need to look elsewhere , and the most obvious candidate is conflict of belief . On this account , while Copperfield ’ s audience very firmly believes ( in fact , knows ) that unaided human flight is impossible , a successful performance will induce in them ( at least temporarily ) the conflicting belief that he is actually flying . This would be to experience the performance as thoroughly real and thoroughly unreal at the same time . Presumably this would be a powerful expe-
7 ) For more on the contrast between fiction and illusion , see Walton ( 1990 : 54 – 57 ). The example comparing Copperfield to Peter Pan is drawn from Ortiz ( 2011 : 25 ). Note that the Müller-Lyer illusion is not ( by itself ) magical because it is not an illusion as of something impossible . That said , there is a long history — dating at least to the 19th century — of using optical illusions such as the Müller-Lyer to create magical illusions . rience . However , I doubt it is psychologically possible ; and , even if it is , it cannot be the point of the performance . Copperfield ’ s flying illusion is one of the greatest illusions in magic , but it ’ s altogether implausible to think that mature audience members come to believe ( even temporarily ) that he is actually flying . Again , magic isn ’ t about inducing “ belief in the impossible ” any more than horror is about inducing belief in monsters 8 . Thus , it seems that a correct characterization of the experience of magic requires an account of cognitive dissonance where active disbelief comes into conflict with a mental state that is not a belief at all .
On this very point , here is Ortiz , from his book on magic performance , Strong Magic :
[ F ] orget about creating willing suspension of disbelief . Get your audience to actually believe in magic …. [ But how ] can you make a sophisticated , modern audience believe in magic ? You can ’ t , if you ’ re talking about intellectual belief . I ’ m talking about emotional belief . An anecdote from the 19th century perfectly captures the difference between intellectual and emotional belief . Madam De Duffand was asked whether she believed in ghosts . She responded , “ No . But I am afraid of them .” ( 2011 : 25 – 6 )
Even adults that don ’ t believe in ghosts , either consciously or unconsciously , still in various situations respond in various ways as though ghosts exist . Having recently seen Poltergeist , you might feel a rising fear and a sudden tension in your body as you enter a darkened room — but not because you now believe in ghosts ! Arguably , it ’ s the same with magic . When Copperfield floats off the stage , or the mentalist Banachek appears to read your mind , you don ’ t come to believe in magic , but you do to some degree respond , emotionally and somatically , as though something you know to be impossible is happening . So , how should we characterize this sort of response ?
8 ) Compare the view that our responses to fiction are explained by a ( temporary ) belief in the reality of the depicted events . But the idea that the frightened audience of The Exorcist really believes that Regan is possessed by the demon Pazuzu is deeply implausible . For discussion , see Carroll ( 1990 : 63-8 ).


The levitation of Daniel Dunglas Home at Ward Cheney ’ s house interpreted in a lithograph from Louis Figuier , Les Mystères de la science 1887