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


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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Wonder Woman’s Lie Detector

Wonder Woman’s “Lasso of truth” was a failsafe way to defeat criminals

I’ve just been reading about lying. Isn’t this fact great: William Moulton Marston, inventor of the lie detector, was also a feminist campaigner and the creator of Wonder Woman! It’s even more brilliant when you remember that Wonder Woman’s superpower was a magic lasso that could force villains to tell the truth!

I don’t know about magic lassos, but some modern lie detectors probably do work, because they measure breathing, sweating and blood pressure. Deceiving puts the body under a lot of stress.

You can get a lot from just looking at people. Studies show that liars touch their face more, look away, swallow too much and talk more cautiously (they use more words – “I did not do it” instead of  “I didn’t“).

Gregory Peck takes on the Mouth of Truth in Roman Holiday. Love how genuinely worried Audrey Hepburn looks here.

Not all lie detectors are high tech though. It was said that if a liar put their hand in the ancient Roman “Mouth of Truth” it would get bitten off!

A bit of untruth can be useful sometimes. Here’s a painfully honest first date, from The Invention of LyingContinue reading

How to read minds

Back to the Future’s Doc had limited success with his psychic device

Close your eyes and let me read your mind. Hmm. Would you say you sometimes feel insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well? I sense you need others to like you, and are quite self-critical. I get the feeling you are mostly reserved, but when you feel like it, you can easily be the centre of attention. And you… you seem to be on the brink of making a big decision. I’m getting something about telephones; does a broken phone mean anything to you?

This is the Forer or Barnum effect. P. T Barnum was a fascinating 19th Century showman and hoaxer. He said he had “something for everyone” which of course he did! These statements are so general they can apply to anyone and are still used by psychics, palm readers and astrologers all the time to great effect. Some even cleverly contain totally opposite ideas in one sentence: remember when I asked you if you were sometimes shy, but then sometimes outgoing, too?

Horoscopes are full of Barnum statements – but don’t take my word for it. Look at these predictions from different star signs on How many of them apply to you (or anyone who might be likely to read and believe their horoscopes)?

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The Art of Influence

Don Draper: selling people things they didn’t know they wanted

A big part of magic is understanding how people think, so most magicians are really interested in psychology – and I’m no exception. People are always going to be unpredictable, that’s why they’re so interesting! But understanding why they do the things they do, and guiding their thoughts in certain directions – on or off stage – is sometimes just a case of knowing the techniques. And it can be especially useful if you have something major you’re trying to sell, like a house or a car.

Every hypnotist knows that in the battle of willpower versus imagination, imagination will always win. Have you noticed how estate agents always say things like “When you have friends round you could sit out on the patio here,” and “This could be your kid’s room”? It’s all about getting us to vividly picture ourselves in the house and is not too far from what a hypnotist does. Appeal to their imagination every time, and you can get people feeling positive about almost anything.

If you’re trying to sell something, it’s really important to tailor your pitch to the person you’re selling to. People like different things about cars, for example a gadget geek might be interested in the tech while someone else might prefer the speed or the finish. Listen to what they’re telling you, rather than making assumptions.

I’ve found that body language isn’t really a great guide to what people are thinking. In my experience, staying in the moment and being intuitive is much better than trying to analyse physical signals.

You can read more tips like these in this interview I did with WIRED magazine last year. The Wikipedia page on Persuasion has a lot of interesting stuff on it, too.