Magic, much like pornography, suffers from a rather nebulous definition. We are all familiar with the basic concepts of magic in the form of tricks and/or illusions, but we would likely find ourselves hard-pressed to produce any sort of simply stated, agreed-upon definition. It’s something we all know from a young age; whether through that uncle who enjoyed “stealing your nose” or removing the tip of their thumb or from countless children’s birthday parties for which the sole form of entertainment was a self-proclaimed magician of some sort doing a variety of parlor tricks. Or perhaps it’s something more grandiose like a David Copperfield or David Blaine (Did I said grandiose? I guess I more meant morose with the latter). In either case, the art of illusion plays a major role in how and what we experience when it comes to magic.

With Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic, researcher and magician Gustav Kuhn seeks to break down the ideas of magic into something more than mere child’s play, delving deep into our psychological, emotional and physiological responses to magic in its myriad forms. From the start, Kuhn takes a more philosophical approach to the idea of magic, making it something that is to be taken seriously rather than function as a sort of well-worn social and cultural punchline. Instead, he explores the idea of magic as a mutually agreed upon form of deception in which we the audience willing engage with the magician or performer. This goes well beyond “pick a card, any card,” examining the psychological ramifications of approved deception.

The idea of magic and the magician within a popular sense is one often rooted in a sort of queasy sensation of being ill at ease. These individuals devote their lives to the art of deception and exploration of the (for lack of a better term) nerdier elements of the entertainment industry. They seek to entertain through a series of blatant deceptions that are in turn accepted with awe and wonder by an audience willing to be taken for fools. It’s an odd combination of factors that help make magic one of the more philosophically perplexing forms of entertainment.

Approaching magic as a welcome form of deception, one in which the suspension of disbelief exists on a more primitive, emotional level than one rooted in any sort of intellectual understanding of the processes occurring before our eyes, makes for somewhat heavy intellectual lifting. But Kuhn is well up to the task, taking his time exploring each element of his theses in depth and without overreaching. From a scientific standpoint, he argues and provides the clinical research to back it up, our perception of magic in real time affects the same two portions of our brain (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) that control conflict management/monitoring and conflict resolution.

In other words, while we may enjoy the art of magic, we mentally process it in much the same way we deal with conflict, something the vast majority of us would no doubt avoid at all cost. Yet it’s this conflict between what we witness/experience in real time verses what we known (or perhaps believe) to be rationally possible that ultimately makes magic so fascinating on both an intellectual and purely emotional level. Can we truly believe our eyes and, if so, do we want to simply operate on such faith or take it one step further and attempt to understand what it is we’ve just experienced. It’s almost faith-based in its purest unquestioning form, allowing the eyes and mind to be willingly deceived and finding pleasure in the deception.

Quoting a fellow magician/philosopher, Kuhn shares that “…magic is the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event.” With Experiencing the Impossible, Kuhn manages to both contextualize the experience of wonder, while also taking an in-depth look at the scientific principles at work within our confused brains as we try to make sense of the inexplicable. You don’t need to have any sort of opinion on magic in order to appreciate the great deal of thought at work – as illustrated by Kuhn – within the field of magic and the broader philosophical questions and implications surrounding a seemingly child-focused form of entertainment.

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