Experiencing the Impossible
The Science of Magic
296 pp., 6 x 9 in, 43 b&w illus.
- Published: March 12, 2019
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: February 15, 2019
- Publisher: The MIT Press
How the scientific study of magic reveals intriguing—and often unsettling—insights into the mysteries of the human mind.
What do we see when we watch a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat or read a person's mind? We are captivated by an illusion; we applaud the fact that we have been fooled. Why do we enjoy experiencing what seems clearly impossible, or at least beyond our powers of explanation? In Experiencing the Impossible, Gustav Kuhn examines the psychological processes that underpin our experience of magic. Kuhn, a psychologist and a magician, reveals the intriguing—and often unsettling—insights into the human mind that the scientific study of magic provides.
Magic, Kuhn explains, creates a cognitive conflict between what we believe to be true (for example, a rabbit could not be in that hat) and what we experience (a rabbit has just come out of that hat!). Drawing on the latest psychological, neurological, and philosophical research, he suggests that misdirection is at the heart of all magic tricks, and he offers a scientific theory of misdirection. He explores, among other topics, our propensity for magical thinking, the malleability of our perceptual experiences, forgetting and misremembering, free will and mind control, and how magic is applied outside entertaiment—the use of illusion in human-computer interaction, politics, warfare, and elsewhere.
We may be surprised to learn how little of the world we actually perceive, how little we can trust what we see and remember, and how little we are in charge of our thoughts and actions. Exploring magic, Kuhn illuminates the complex—and almost magical—mechanisms underlying our daily activities.
"Whether you are someone who is captivated by magic tricks or not, if you care about the human mind, you'll like Experiencing the Impossible. Psychologist Gustav Kuhn takes us on a fascinating trip around the mysterious world of deception and illusion. This book is a wonderful journey that teaches us much about the science behind the experience of magic."
Elisabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine, and author of Eyewitness Testimony
"In Experiencing the Impossible, Gustav Kuhn breaks new ground at the intersection of magic and science. An engrossing read that is engaging and not overly technical, this book will deepen your appreciation for magic and those who perform it."
Joshua Jay, magician; author of Magic: The Complete Course
“The evolution of illusionism in the twenty-first century is transforming the art of magic into a social and cultural element and an object of study used in many environments far beyond show business. The contribution of this book, written with passion and competence by the psychologist-magician Gustav Kuhn, deepens the ability of illusion to reveal how mind works, adding a powerful and important contribution to the development of magic.”
Domenico Dante, International President, Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques
“Previous attempts to scientifically examine the principles of conjuring have all suffered from a shallow understanding of science, magic, or both. But here, for the first time, a researcher with deep knowledge of both science and magic shares his findings with the world. Within twenty pages, I, a professional conjurer, felt that my grasp of my own field became noticeably richer.”
Tom Stone, magician; author of Vortex and Maelstro
Experiencing the Impossible is a cogently argued, persuasive and often enthralling account of the pleasures he experienced while researching what he calls “one of the most captivating and enduring forms of entertainment."
Times Higher Education
A fascinating foray into the subtle mechanics of creating wonder.
Research suggests that even when the audience knows how a magic trick works, it still has the power to amaze and intrigue, much like this book did for me. I recommend it to the curious.
An engaging and accessible read focusing on an unusual, yet surprisingly interesting connection, the one between magic and cognitive sciences.
With Experiencing the Impossible, Kuhn manages to both contextualize the experience of wonder, while also taking an in-depth look at the scientific principles at work within our confused brains as we try to make sense of the inexplicable.
An engaging and informative work.