'The Spectacle of Illusion' is the official book accompanying the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition 'Smoke and Mirrors'. The exhibition doesn’t open until next week, but you can get ahead of the game and read an extract from the book here.
Everyone’s heard, and most of us have told, a story about an uncanny or supernatural-seeming experience. Accounts of wondrous, impossible phenomena are common around the world and go back at least as far as we have written records: history is riddled with stories of gods and monsters, witches and ghosts, prophecies and premonitions. People have heard dead men speak, seen objects inexplicably vanish and reappear, and watched ectoplasm ooze from unexpected orifices. These extraordinary events often seem to be facilitated by extraordinary individuals: sorcerers, spiritual mediums, psychic sensitives.
Such phenomena have even been reported under ‘test conditions’, witnessed by scientists – men professionally trained in the practice of empirical observation. The German astrophysicist Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner, for example, asserted that he had shaken hands with the disembodied limb of an extra-dimensional spirit being – ‘a friend from another world’. British chemist and physicist William Crookes reported that he had not only photographed a ghost, but had also taken its pulse and cut o some of its hair. The American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote that he had spoken to his deceased father through a spirit medium. Researchers at Washington University believed that they had discovered a pair of psychics with the ability to move objects using only the power of their minds. Physicists in the employ of the United States government have spent decades trying to weaponize spoon benders.
But while scientists are trained in gathering evidence based on empirical observations, they are not necessarily trained in deception. Perhaps, in some circumstances, well-intentioned researchers are actually more prone to illusory experiences than the average observer. After all, microscopes and other laboratory equipment might malfunction and produce inaccurate readings, but they won’t deliberately lie to you for the purpose of achieving fame and fortune.
Enter the professional magician. Like psychics and mediums, magicians present themselves as exceptional individuals who can facilitate impossible phenomena. But, unlike spiritualists, magicians are artists who make it clear that they achieve these phenomena through trickery and illusion. The term ‘misdirection’ tends to evoke thoughts of smoke ad mirrors or the quickest of the hand deceiving the eye. However, these ideas themselves arguably distract from the broader cognitive implications. Magicians have long known, and scientists are becoming increasingly aware, that misdirection can encompass much more than simply influencing where a spectator looks. Used effectively, misdirection can affect not just what we see, but how we reason and remember. Most of us recognize that we cannot always trust our eyes, but a deeper, more uncomfortable truth is that we cannot always trust our minds.
Historically, many magicians have taken a professional satisfaction in exposing self-proclaimed spiritualists and psychics who also make use of trickery and misdirection. Instead of acknowledging their feats as illusions, such charlatans have attributed their powers to magnetic fields, spirits or extra- sensory perception. Paradoxically, exposure of such chicanery has sometimes itself involved elaborate hoaxes and deceptions. Harry Houdini donned elaborate disguises and employed networks of spies to infiltrate and disrupt spiritualist organizations. James Randi orchestrated an elaborate hoax that
ran for several years, in which fake psychics infiltrated a parapsychological lab. In effect, these plans involve stacking lies atop lies in an attempt to reach the truth.
One of our prevailing cultural narratives is that scientific understanding of the world has been steadily marching forward in a neat, linear fashion. And certainly, we have made remarkable progress. But if you look closely, you might notice that many debunked concepts have a tendency to recur over and over again with slight variations. At one time, paranormal practitioners might claim to receive messages from spirits; later, they might claim that these messages were obtained through telepathy; and later still, they might attribute their powers to extra-sensory perception. Each of these marvels can be effectively duplicated using the same kinds of magic tricks. Today’s fraudulent bomb-detecting machines are quite probably simply the latest variation of Victorian table-tilting phenomena and dowsing. Far from being dated tales of archaic superstitions, these weird and apparently inexplicable phenomena represent timeless stories of human curiosity, credulity, ingenuity and guile. They are, by turns, comic and tragic, but consistently fascinating nonetheless. They highlight how illusions can combine with powerful emotional experiences, such as the fear of death or sorrow at a loss, to create what seem to be extraordinary paranormal experiences that appear to be unexplainable by our current natural scientific conceptions of the world.
While neither magicians nor scientists can ever really ‘prove’ that past testimonies of supernatural phenomena are fraudulent or mistaken, contemporary researchers regularly demonstrate how eccentricities of healthy human perception, memory and cognition can result in vivid and robust illusions. In many cases, scientific explanations of how our minds can produce such illusions are at least as wondrous as the proposed supernatural explanations. For example, we now know that healthy adults who are on the brink of sleep can, under some circumstances, experience vivid dreams that blend seamlessly with their waking world. Indeed, some scientists are increasingly turning to magic as a tool to explore how sane, intelligent individuals can experience remarkably weird illusory episodes.
Barring a genuine ability to psychically project your consciousness backwards through time, you cannot truly re-experience historic accounts of these wondrous phenomena. You weren’t there. You didn’t see it. But this book can help reveal what you missed.