Some Thoughts on Magic, Mentalism and Media

Perception is Everything!

Loyd Auerbach

Back in November 2001, I performed/lectured for a group at the Institute of Noetic Sciences ( in Petaluma , California . My lecture was entitled “Magic, Mentalism and Media: Perception Is Everything!” Below is the write-up for it that appeared in their program books for the retreat. I realize that some of what’s here may be controversial amongst magicians, but hey, that simply makes life interesting.

In the world of psi, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Vernon Neppe coined the phrase “subjective paranormal experience” to as a descriptive label of what we call psychic experience. While there is an objective reality (or at least there appears to be one), our experience of that reality is dependent on our personal perceptions and assessments of those perceptions. We each create our own subjective reality in that we each have specific parameters and filters we apply to process and digest the information pulled in by our “normal” and “paranormal” senses. When it comes to psi, how we subjectively perceive our own experiences can cause us to be more or less likely to label the experience as psychic or paranormal or just plain weird.

Perception depends to some extent on learning. Once we learn to see the world in a particular way, a way that may actually be part of our cultural and/or religious background, it is difficult, though not impossible, to see it any other way. Our beliefs, if changing, may affect our perceptions — as they affect the ways we expect things to behave, including our own perceptions.

The perception of things in one environment may not translate well when faced with the same things in a new environment. We may unconsciously ignore or re-interpret happenings that make no sense according to our expectations.

Perceptual expectations can be superimposed on the way objects and events “objectively” exist, resulting in a distorted perception (one that may be seen differently by others). Past experience, current and past motives, the context of the event, or simple suggestion can precondition perception in surprising ways, which may or may not actually reflect reality. We see what we want and expect to see, especially when the event is of short duration and happens in an out-of-the-ordinary way.

Magicians have long taken advantage of perceptual processes and expectations, as well as optical and other sense-related principles that may cause something physical in to be mistaken for something else. Effects and illusions are designed and performed in such a way as to theoretically take maximum advantage of what is known about the psychology of perception (and misperception). Most magic is visual for a very good reason: humans tend to rely most heavily on the sense of sight, and assess visual input in certain known ways.

Magicians make use of the attention-focusing of their audiences. For the most part, they do that with visually perceived movements, props, and distractions (such as a brief flash or a scantily clad assistant). They may also use sound and language to distract and play with perceptions.

But magicians also take advantage of the memory processes and how they impact not only what an audience member expects to happen next, but also how that same audience member later tries to reconstruct what happened. Perceptual expectancy effects can linger in the aftermath of many an illusion.

Of course, magicians also use mechanical/technological means to perform their miracles, using principles that generally have no or little application in other walks of life (so don’t wrack your brain trying to figure them out — just sit back and be entertained).

Today, magicians at their best are entertainers who create and sustain a sense of wonder in their audiences. But the vast majority of the audience is aware that “Magic” is not real, that what they’ve experienced are tricks and illusions that “fool” the senses.

On the other hand, Mentalism (also known as Psychic Entertainment) is a branch of the entertainment arts — usually seen as a branch of the conjuring arts — wherein the performer simulates psychic, paranormal, supernormal, occult or supernatural “powers.” The mentalist in his performance may also go the direction of demonstrating bizarre psychological (rather than psychic) effects as such, or may even put things in the context of taking advantage of synchronicity, Fate, or other underlying Universal trends and forces.

For decades, there has been somewhat of a split between many magicians and many mentalists. This is likely partly caused by the reactions of their audiences.

Magicians do “Magic” that is not accepted as even potentially “real.”

Mentalists do things that might be real.

The audience members may typically ask a Magician “how did you do that?” but ask the Mentalist “was that real?” These are very different reactions. Mentalists could be doing real stuff, and there are varying degrees of comfort that psychic entertainers feel in relation to such audience reactions. This is why there has been much discussion and dissent with regard to psychic entertainers offering disclaimers (or not).

Of course, for the magicians who are truly entertaining, the acceptance of their art as reality is less important. If their audiences are entertained, they are almost never going to feel “tricked” or “fooled,” which is what typically generates the “I need to know how you did that” attitudes and reactions.   Same goes for mentalists.

Then there’s the Media.

How many of us view the world around us is shaped by a very few things: 1) what our education brought to us, 2) what our social circle has impressed upon us and 3) what the Media tells us. In relation to the recent terrorist attacks, if one compares the reactions of people in the Middle Eastern countries where there is little Media or access to international information to those of people who have free access to the such information, it’s clear that lack or presence of the Media is a key factor in what shapes (or doesn’t shape) people’s ideas.

For the most part, we accept what the Media tells us. Journalistic truth! Impartial reporting! These are the battle cries of reporters everywhere.

But if one takes the time to really understand the Media, one learns that there are often agendas — hidden or overt — and points of view being promulgated. The Media builds on our perceptions and understanding of how the world works.

Like Magic!

Unfortunately, unlike Magic — more like Mentalism — people perceive what they see and hear as “real” without asking “how did you do that?” or even “why did you do that?” If it seems real, because it fits in with our perceptual (and intellectual and emotional) expectations, it must be real.

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