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Magic and mysticism reveal cognitive shortcuts with implications beyond entertainment

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal

Matthew L. Tompkins
224 pp.
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Published to coincide with the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition “Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” The Spectacle of Illusion is a delightful and informative roller coaster that explores our fascination with magic, the paranormal, and the psychology of cognitive illusions. Author Matt Tompkins—who is both a psychologist and a magician—makes a detailed analysis of magicians and the responses they elicit in unsuspecting spectators, with some intriguing thoughts about magic, its close alignment with the paranormal, and psychologists’ enduring fascination with psychical research.

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, famously argued that the magician is not a performer of juggling tricks but an actor playing the role of someone with supernatural powers. The French use “magicien” to refer to the supernatural component and “prestidigateur” to describe a magician with nimble fingers. This distinction obfuscates the fact that what is perceived to be magic takes place not in the hands of the magician but in the mind of the spectator. James Randi astutely summarizes, “As a magician, I was able to see two things very clearly: a) ow people can be fooled, and b) how they fooled themselves, and the second is far more important than the first.”

The Spectacle of Illusion is laid out in a series of acts that explore the transformation of magic from early mesmeric and spiritualist phenomena and master magicians to psychical research and parapsychological investigators. Although a short chapter, the book’s culmination—“Act five: The psychology of illusion”—is the highlight, providing a coherent analysis of how the mind is tricked when asked to see, to reason, and to remember. Here, Tompkins delves into all the attendant ramifications of cognitive roadblocks and biases and explores our propensity to believe in more than we perceive.

From a scientific perspective, both magic effects and other violations of expectancy activate comparable regions of the prefrontal cortex. As such, magic has the potential to explore the subjective experience of what we see, when we remember, and how we reason.

Magicians, we learn, discovered a number of key features of cognition long before they were studied by psychologists. Richard Hodgson and Samuel John Davey, for example, would not have considered themselves to be experimental psychologists, yet their 1887 paper “The Possibilities of mal-observation and lapse of memory from a practical point of view” (1) described what later became known as the “reconstructive nature of memory” (2). Likewise, the “princess card trick”—first described by Thomas Nelson Downs in 1909 (3) and invented by magician Henry Hardin—relies on a cognitive blip, known as “change blindness,” in which spectators fail to detect changes to a scene when the changes are accompanied by visual disruption. This phenomenon was not examined in the psychology literature until 1997 (4).

Psychologists have also contributed to our understanding of magic. Here, Tompkins turns to the work of Alfred Binet on the psychology of prestidigitation, sometimes known as sleight of hand (5). Although best known for his work on IQ tests, in the paper to which Tompkins alludes, Binet demonstrates that photography can effectively destroy the psychological power of a magic effect by stripping away the artifice and other elements that create some cognitive illusions. For this reason, close-up magicians often request that audiences not film their performances.

The Spectacle of Illusion elegantly interweaves the expertise and perspectives of both psychologists and magicians to offer a powerful account of how metacognitive paradoxes work through illusions of omission and commission. There is still much to unpack about the nature of human cognitive processes but no reason to believe we won’t do so. As Tompkins writes, “No psychologist can claim that science has been able to fully describe how a human mind can construct conscious experience. But just because something must remain unexplained…does not mean it is unexplainable.


  1. 1. S. J. Davey, Proc. Soc. Psych. Res. 4, 381 (1887).

  2. 2. F. C. Bartlett, Remembering a Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1932).

  3. 3. T. Nelson Downs, The Art of Magic (Downs-Edwards, 1909).

  4. 4. R. A. Rensink et al., Psychol. Sci. 8, 368 (1997).

  5. 5. A. Binet, The Psychology of Prestidigitation, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, USA, M. Nichols, transl. (Smithsonian Institution, 1894).

About the author

The reviewers are at the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK.