The Role of Imagination in Magic


By Eric Walton

Eric Walton in Esoterica

This is the second in our ongoing series of Guest Blogger entries.

It is no secret that magic is an art-form based largely upon secrets—secret moves, secret apparatus, secret intentions. If the presentation of magic is to be successful, the magician must know something that the spectator does not and he must keep that something a secret for as long as he can.

But a secret isn’t the same as a lie.

A lie is the deliberate misrepresentation of the truth, perpetrated in order to gain some advantage, generally a malicious one. A lie is always told with the intent to deceive, whereas a secret is merely the concealment of the truth or some aspect of it and may or may not involve the will to mislead. I may have a secret tattoo of Genghis Khan on the sole of my foot, but you are unlikely to consider yourself deceived if I fail to disclose the fact when we first meet.

And while we magicians must sometimes resort to overt lying in order to present our tricks successfully, most of the deception on which we rely is not in the form of lies that we tell our audiences, but in the fabrications and confabulations that take place within the minds of the spectators themselves. The magician orchestrates a series of “experiential voids” which audience members consciously and unconsciously fill with their own expectations, assumptions and interpretations. Thus, audience members are not so much the victims of the magician’s deception, as they are both witting and unwitting accomplices in it.

What every good magician understands is that the act of perception is also an act of imagination; and that the information he or she gives to the spectators—visual, auditory and otherwise—is fraught with associations and expectations that have formed over the course of each individual’s lifetime of experience, and will almost always be interpreted in ways that are consistent with that experience.

The act of mentally filling in the blanks left by our senses in order to create a full experience of the world is known as “schema-driven,” “top-down” processing. (Schema refers to the organization of information—the ways ideas are connected within our minds.) Specifically, the magician understands that within the spectator’s mind (as in his or her own) a causal relationship between events has been established; and given (or denied) the appropriate stimuli, the spectator will automatically and unconsciously impose that causal relationship upon everything he or she sees and hears.

For example, an individual will quite naturally expect that if a butter-knife falls off the table, it will inevitably (and quickly) fall to the floor. His or her experience of the world has imprinted on the mind the inescapable link between falling off the table and landing on the floor. And if, a fraction of a second after the knife falls, what he or she hears is not the familiar sound of metal hitting the ground, but the sound of a startled dog, he or she will not (if sane) assume that the knife has magically transformed into the family pet, but rather that it landed on the hapless animal who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our brains (with some unfortunate exceptions) have not evolved to expect extraordinary explanations when ordinary ones will do. It is the task of the competent conjuror to eliminate the ordinary explanations until only the extraordinary explanation remains. And this we do not by fooling the senses, but by inducing the imaginations of our audiences to fill the sensory gaps left by our carefully choreographed actions.

Thus, it is both inaccurate and misleading to say that the magician has fooled your eyes. In order to fool your eyes, I would have to alter the way photons of light fall on your retinas, a feat of which neither I nor any magician I’ve ever met is remotely capable. A much more interesting and satisfying and exciting task is to compel the imagination of the spectator to complete a story from which certain passages have been deliberately left out.

As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar (in an early, unpublished draft to be sure!): “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our visual cortices, but in our reliance on top-down processing.”

Award-winning actor and magician Eric Walton has been a student of the conjuring arts since 1999. His one-man show Esoterica has been produced in New York City, London, Edinburgh, and Brighton, England and was a critic’s pick for the Times of London, Backstage East, The List and, among others. He lives in New York City with his pet doves.

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