Ahh – it is magic! Illusion is a fun medium and a powerful tool for learning, creativity and expression. Richard Wiseman, a professor of magic, in the UK has been working with the College of Magic in Cape Town. He is intrigued with its work as it aligns very much with his approach as an academic and as an enthusiast. Wiseman’s interest in magic was sparked when he was eight years old. He made his career in magic and has a PhD in the psychology of magic and deception. As ‘professor of the public understanding of psychology’ at the University of Hertfordshire, he is an internationally renowned academic on magic and thinking about illusion. His research includes the studying of the positive effects of magic in young people – such as enhancing self-esteem, confidence, ability to think logically and to hone fine motor co-ordination. The College of Magic (COM) in Cape Town, does all that- offering tuition for school going children and operating programmes for youth from communities in need- making magic accessible for all. Wiseman was intrigued about its work and during the pandemic, he connected with the COM which was established in 1980 – 44 years ago. The COM is regarded as South Africa’s Hogwarts and is widely considered as “unique” in its offerings in magic tuition. Wiseman worked with the COM on developing a magic book, Everybody’s Magic, geared for young people. He made the book available for the COM’s fund raising and has been involved as a consultant for its stage magic shows. As Wiseman reflects in this interview, yes, magic is “created by trickery and illusion”. This is the academic and skeptic speaking. There is nothing paranormal about magic. However, the “magic” is “about giving people a wonderful, impossible, experience… ” Magic “expands people’s minds, and they will remember the experience for the rest of their lives”. Read on for more:
TCR: How did you connect with The College of Magic [COM] in Cape Town?
RW: I have been in magic since I was eight years old and have been aware of the COM for a long time. However, it is only really recently that I have started to look at their wonderful work in detail. A few years ago, a highly skilled British magician, Guy Hollingworth visited the COM and I spoke to him about his experience there. He was very enthusiastic and that was great. Then I think that I came across a magazine article that described their work in detail and I realised that they had developed enormous expertise in using magic to help young people. When I saw the scope and depth of their work, I made contact and started to chat about how we might be able to collaborate.
TCR: Insights into your studies of the positive effects of magic in young people? The College of Magic in Cape Town is doing all of that?
RW: Magic is an amazing tool for change. To be a great magician you have to be confident, creative, empathic and work hard. Even learning the simplest of illusions equips you with all of these skills and much more. I have just completed a large review of all of the work, examining the positive impact that learning magic can have on people’s lives and the evidence is overwhelming. Not only that, but magic is fun. I am delighted that the COM is using magic to improve the lives of so many young people. And they have been doing it for a long, long time. They are the trail blazers and pioneers of the real magic of magic.
TCR: Please tell us about your trajectory as a magician and your pivot into academia and within that your zeal for imparting skills to young people?
RW: As I say, I became interested in magic young. In my teens I joined the Magic Circle in London and also went to perform in America. I realized that magicians are great psychologists because they have to understand how their audiences think and feel. Because of that I became interested in psychology and eventually enrolled for a degree at University College London (chosen, in part, because it was close to the Magic Circle). Then I did a PhD in the psychology of magic and deception, and took an academic position at the University of Hertfordshire. In around 2008 I became interested in the positive impact of learning magic and have carried out some studies using both British adults and schoolchildren. However, the COM really know how to deliver amazing courses on magic and it’s great to see the theory in practice.
TCR: How did your book, Everybody’s Magic come about?
RW: I had a few zoom calls with the COM and we thought that it would be fun to put together a new type of magic book for younger people. It differs from a regular magic book in several ways. First, it is far more diverse than most books. Second, the tricks are taught from children at the COM. Third, it featured inspirational stories based on great magicians who often don’t appear in these types of books. The project was completed during the pandemic and it was an amazing project to work on. It involved both staff and students at the COM and has been praised by magicians around the world, which is nice.
TCR: Do you plan to do so in the future- work with the COM and/or put on a magic show in South Africa?
RW: That would be great. I would love to come over and see the COM live. It would be wonderful to work on a show or another big project. So yes, count me in and I hope to see you all face to face soon. Zoom is remarkable but nothing beats actually being in a room with other people.
TCR: Can you tell South African readers- who may not be familiar with your work – the fact that you love magic but there is nothing hocus-pocus in magic and that the medium is a powerful tool for learning, social transformation and development?
RW: You conjure up (I use that word deliberately), the sheer wonder of magic – the way it thrills, confounds and entertains us. In tandem, with that, you do not believe in the so-called the paranormal or supernatural. It is all just an illusion.
TCR: Insights into the intersection of magic and reality? You are a respected academic, a professor, sceptic, author of books such as Quirkology and contributor to peer reviewed academic journals such as Nature, Science and the Psychological Bulletin. Comments?
RW: Yes, magic is created by trickery and illusion. However, it really is more about giving people a wonderful, impossible, experience. Nothing beats watching a magic trick live. Seeing something that is impossible appear to happen right in front of your eyes. It expands people’s minds, and they will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. This is completely different to ‘genuine’ magic. That is more associated with the paranormal and the supernatural. I am quite skeptical about all of that stuff, and some of my work has investigated psychics and mediums. I find it all fascinating but have never seen any evidence to suggest that paranormal phenomena exists.
TCR: Can we talk about encouraging young women to take up a career in magic? Traditionally women have been the assistants to men – sawn in half in the famous act. The COM is particularly in nurturing young women. Your thoughts?
RW: Magic is for everybody. As you say, in the past, it is mainly male magicians that have stepped into the spotlight. However, that is now changing very quickly and there are some wonderful and talented female magicians working all over the world. Again, the COM have always been great at encouraging everyone to reach their potential. They also work hard to try to ensure that a large number of girls enrol on their courses and take part in the shows. Their most recent show demonstrates the power of that idea and it looked amazing. The past is the past and I am far more interested in the future. The COM is very much part of that future.
TCR: Can we talk about the popularity of mentalism- a branch of magic? The UK’s Derren Brown comes to mind, with his dazzling shows. Some mentalists present themselves as ‘psychic’ and claim that have trained themselves to read minds. Comment?
RW: There is a form of magic called mentalism. This often included examples of performers apparently reading minds, predicting the future and so on. It’s very different to sawing someone in half. Many of these performers frame themselves as psychological illusionists. That is, they use psychology to do what they do. Of course, some of the time that explanation is part of the deception. In the UK, we are lucky enough to have Derren Brown. He is a master showman and one of my favourite performers. Derren is a psychological illusionist and partly responsible for the increase in popularity of this type of magic
TCR: Is magic in Africa, an area of interest for you?
RW: I have to say that I don’t know very much about magic in Africa but I would love to visit and discover more. Like all performing arts, magic is a product of the culture in which it is created. I grew up in the UK and so everything I saw was very British. But they say that travel broadens the mind, and I would certainly love to see what is happening in Africa. Magic as an art will only move forward if it continues to grow and to develop. Everyone, and every culture, has a vital role to play in that.
TCR: Have you as an academic and magic enthusiast, noted an increase in interest in magic, during the pandemic, when a lot was available online?
RW: I think that magic works best when it is experienced live. The COM know that and that’s why they stage their amazing live shows. When you see magic on a screen, there is always the possibility of camera trickery. Also, younger people are spending loads of time on screen these days – I am not sure that is for the best. Magic is about genuine and authentic connections with other people. It means putting screens down and spending time with friends and family.
TCR: In your studies of young people and magic, have you encountered belief systems handed down to young people by their parents – the persistence of irrational belief- which postures as supernatural, ancestral, religious?
RW: All of our beliefs are influenced, in part, by our upbringing. I have studied the psychology of luck and superstition, and that depends very much on the culture that people were brought up in. But the same goes for how optimistic we are, and how much we think that we can change and grow. Magic is symbolic of the impossible being possible, and that is very inspirational for people.
TCR: What are new trends in magic?
RW: That’s a good question. I think there is a shift to thinking about making magic meaningful: How can it be used to inspire people. These are difficult times for lots of people, and I think they benefit from knowing that the seemingly impossible is possible. Also, I am seeing more and more magicians teaching magic in order to change younger minds and lives. The COM are at the centre of that movement and they are respected by magicians across the world. Their work is vitally important and seeing magic through that lens may well lead to new advances for the art. We need far more diversity and new forms of presentation. The COM are pivotal in that work and I am delighted to be associated with them.
TCR: What are you working on right now?
RW: I have a book coming out very soon on how magic has the power to improve lives. I am also creating a new podcast: Richard Wiseman’s On Your Mind, which is all about the type of psychology that I love. And am also publishing some academic papers on magic and illusion. So it’s very busy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
✳This interview has been marginally edited. Featured image of Professor Richard Wiseman – supplied.