How to see things that aren’t there

Hallucinations in Trainspotting. Who knew this harmless hobby could have such devastating effects?

Ever seen something that wasn’t there? As a magician I’m always thinking about how the senses can deceive, so I couldn’t help but notice there are a few new books out at the moment about hallucinations (like this one by Oliver Sacks, which looks really good).

It’s not just people who are mentally disturbed or on mind-altering drugs who have these experiences. People who are losing their sight can get Charles Bonnet syndrome, where the brain concocts elaborate visions (usually faces). Hallucinations are a really interesting reminder that our senses are all we have to go on! Cut off sight and sound and the brain starts to amuse itself.

Check out this amazing clip from Horizon. Volunteers stayed in totally dark rooms without any sensory input, for 48 hours. What do you think happened? It includes an interview with former hostage Brian Keenan, who had some very scary experiences indeed: Continue reading

The best ways to die

Keep dancing. Not always the best advice.

Ever get that thing where you can’t stop laughing? In 1962 in Tanganyika, hundreds of people were afflicted by the giggles. It started with some schoolgirls and quickly spread through the town. Months later, schools were closed, and people were experiencing pain and fainting as a result of these ‘laughter attacks’. As a magician I want people to enjoy my gags but not get ill from them! It did make me think of this, though:

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Test your memory

Jason Bourne never let a spot of amnesia stand in his way.

Can you touch-type, snowboard, or play an instrument without really thinking about it? Most people who repeat the same movements regularly in their work will know about slightly spooky ‘muscle memory’.

As a magician, I spend a lot of time practicing tricks until certain muscle movements feel natural.

Even when people forget everything else, they can often remember things they’ve ‘burned into’ their bodies through repetition.

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How to control your dreams

Lucid dreaming techniques will help you fight back when Leonardo DiCaprio comes to steal your dreams

Have you ever gone through the whole process of getting ready for school or work only to realise you weren’t even awake?! If you want to check if you’re dreaming or even control what happens, you need to learn how to dream lucidly. Here’s how to improve your chances of having this amazing experience… Continue reading

How to perform surgery on your friends

It certainly looks gruesome, but remember folks: it’s NOT REAL!

Would you let someone operate on you with their bare hands, even if you were totally relaxed and told you wouldn’t feel a thing? Nor me – but weirdly, some people believe ‘psychic surgery’ is real. It’s one of the few daft practices that is genuinely dangerous; if the patient believed the practitioner really had removed a tumour, for example, they could miss out on life-saving surgery and get very ill indeed.

It can look quite convincing. But as realistic as the blood and guts might seem when the ‘surgeon’ apparently plunges their hand deep into the subject’s abdomen, I can assure you it’s all sleight of hand!

And it can make a powerful impression even if you know it’s faked. Watch the effect I had on some of the onlookers in this video:
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The easy way to read minds

Little Britain’s resident psychic could have benefitted from some of these tips

In some ways, people are quite predictable. A recent study found that one in 10 people are using the PIN ‘1234’! If your PIN is 1234, 1111, or 0000, you’re in good company – nearly one in five people have chosen those numbers. Don’t feel too bad if you choose terrible passwords and codes though: during the Cold War,  the “secret unlocking code” for America’s nuclear missiles was 00000000!

More and more things seem to demand new passwords from us all the time. Most of the Linkedin passwords leaked earlier this year were “Link” and “work”. It’s always a bad idea to include personal, publicly-available details like birthdates and home addresses in your passwords.

OK, let’s see how predictable you are. Think of these three things: a number between 1 and 10; a country starting with ‘D’; an animal starting with ‘E’. Got them? OK, let’s see if I can guess them…

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Could you be a psychopath?

A really good book came out last year called The Psychopath Test. It’s the journalist Jon Ronson‘s investigation into madness. You learn loads about personality disorders, but it’s quite difficult to come away from it without diagnosing yourself with a few of them!

The book talks about Bob Hare’s checklist, the criteria that psychopaths usually meet. They tend to be cunning, manipulative, lacking in guilt or empathy, narcissistic, abusive – and very charming. So it’s obvious why you tend to find these people at the top of professions. Ronson suspects there are lots of psychopaths in positions of power (but then by the end of the book, he does start to see them everywhere. And so will you.)

Before Dexter, the amazing US series about “the serial killer with a heart” there was a show called Profit, about a psychopath who manipulated his way to the top in a big corporation. Have a look at how deviously he cheats the lie detector in this clip!

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How to be a magician

So much of magic is about misdirection, and there’s a related psychological term, “Inattentional blindness“, which basically means people not noticing things because their attention is on something else. Maybe you think your concentration is amazing and you’re immune?! OK, watch this clip and count how many times the players in white pass the basketball:

This selective blindness occurs because some things are more noticeable to us than others. Have you ever heard your name mentioned in a conversation on the other side of a busy room? It’s the ‘cocktail party effect‘ – we’re tuned in to noticing things that are relevant to us, so if something’s not meaningful or very visually striking, we’re less likely to see it.

You’re also more likely to miss what’s right in front of you if you have a lot on your mind, or if you expect something else to be there. This blindness makes for great entertainment from magician’s point of view, but it can be dangerous in situations where full attention is required, such as driving.

If you still think your attention’s great, have a go at this one: Continue reading

Quick ways to improve confidence

Even the queen of confidence Lady Gaga has to call a friend sometimes

Confidence is a state of mind. I love that Henry Ford quote: “If you think you can, you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Everyone involved in magic and psychology knows that imagination is extremely powerful. If you’re worried about something – an exam, a job interview, a talk – you can use this power to picture it all going your way. Use all your senses to really transport yourself there, feeling happy, with everything going to plan. It might feel a bit silly but I promise it works amazingly well!

Also try ‘working backwards’ from the goal. If you want to be a happier person, making yourself smile a bit more will help get you there. If you want to be more outgoing, spend some time with outgoing people – pay attention to how they talk and stand. Surrounding yourself with positive people will really help.

Check out some of these booksthese great tipsthis wise article, and the TED talk over the turn about ‘creative confidence’ by David Kelley. It’s pretty inspiring, and helps to put things in perspective:

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Total recall – the people who never forget

How can we be certain our memories are real? Arnie starred in the ultimate paranoia movie, Total Recall (1990)

Do you have a good memory? OK, what were you doing on the 26th of September, 2005? Actually, what were you doing this time last week? As you maybe saw on last night’s C4 documentary about Aurelien Hayman (or yesterday’s BBC Breakfast interview with him) there are people with a medical condition called hyperthymesia who can recall every day of their life in amazing detail.

As they can’t suppress or forget anything, people with this condition seem to feel intensely that they’re living ‘in the moment’, with some saying it has made them more compassionate. I was just reading about the actress Marilu Henner, who compares it to time travel. She has a teenage son, and if she wants to imagine what he’s going through she just transports herself back to when she was exactly his age. I suppose being reminded of our teenaged selves does have its uses…

We can all improve our memories by coming up with funny and exaggerated images to represent what we’re trying to remember. Everyone from Ancient Romans to stage memory masters use this technique – it really works! More about this method here.

Unforgettable is a documentary about Brad Williams, a hyperthymesia sufferer dubbed ‘The Human Google’. Check out the amazing trailer over the turn…

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