Goldfish

Mysteriously Enchanted

This essay was for my Craft of Popularization writing class at the University of Baltimore. Our professor asked us to write an essay about “magic, mind reading, psychic phenomena, etc. Is this real? If not, why not and why do some people want it to be real?” My professor praised my essay as “exceptionally well done” and gave me an A.

Mysteriously Enchanted

At first there is nothing exciting about what I’m watching. The man is dropping coins into an empty fish bowl. Each time coins fall from his hands, they clink and clatter as they hit the bottom of the bowl. Then I start paying closer attention, and I realize he seems to be pulling the coins from thin air before dropping them into the fishbowl. Alright. Impressive sleight-of-hand  but no more than that.

Then I watch him take the bowl full of coins and drop them into a larger tank of water. At first, the coins slowly sink to the bottom of the tank and everything seems extremely ordinary. Then there’s a slight pause, and the man flicks his wrists and opens his hands into the tank of water (where I think he’s about to drop more coins in) and dozens of glittering live goldfish emerge. I know that he cannot turn coins into fish. But I am amazed that he made me think he did. That, to me, is magical.

Magic manifests itself in many ways, from a simple card trick to eerily accurate mind reading and everything in between. If you have ever played with a Ouija board or had someone guess which card from a deck of 52 that you’re holding, you have experienced magic.

So what is magic? One definition that I find particularly accurate is “mysteriously enchanting.” That lovely phrase perfectly captures the wonder I experienced when the silver coins turned into sparkling goldfish and I had no idea how.

Sure, logically you can tear the illusion apart and guess that there were mirrors. Or a false bottom in the tank. Or some distraction made it look like the coins disappeared and the goldfish appeared out of nowhere. But once you start analyzing the illusion, it ceases to be magic. It becomes a problem to be solved rather than a mystery that enchants you. It certainly is not hard to pull the curtain up on a magic trick and see its inner mechanics. In fact, “illusion” is defined as “something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.” We know rationally that what we are seeing is a visual distortion of reality and there is a perfectly logical explanation for it. Unfortunately, that would steal the wonder from the experience.

Certain magical phenomenon, specifically mind reading and other “psychic” events, can be explained away if you understand ideomotor action. The ideomotor action principle, defined by William B. Carpenter in 1852, describes the “influence of suggestion in modifying and directing muscular action.” Or, as psychology professor Ray Hyman explains in his essay Ouija, Dowsing and Other Seductions of Ideomotor Action, through ideomotor activity “people often unwittingly provide clues about their thoughts, and others can unwittingly respond to such clues.”

The mechanics of unconscious movements, self-deception and masterful distractions mean that illusions are just tricks our eyes see that our minds cannot instantly analyze and explain. But they do not explain away magic—the wonder of seeing reality twist right before your eyes.

Jamy Ian Swiss, a magician’s magician and master of sleight-of-hand illusions, said in a 2008 New Yorker article about magic and magicians that “magic only ‘happens’ in a spectator’s mind.” So if magic is really in our mind, does it matter if the illusion or trick can be explained away? Maybe its best if we see something that defies logic and thoroughly enchants us. That, to me, is magical.