I had a friend in college who summed up his personal theology by saying, ”I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in magic.” I thought of that phrase when I ran across an article in The New York Times about an effort by neuroscientists to study the workings of magic tricks on the human brain. As the Times puts it, “The brain uses neural tricks to [build pictures of the world]: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to ‘see’ and what to let pass…. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.”
It’s a rare example of respect for an art form that is disrespectable almost by nature. The subculture of serious magicians, who treat magic almost as a religion, are acutely aware that only they can really appreciate their own work, because only they know what they are actually doing. As the magician Jamy Ian Swiss said in an article in The New Yorker, “Magicians have taken something intrinsically profound and made it look trivial.”
Magic has been called the oldest form of performance art, and no doubt there was a time when magicians were believed to have supernatural powers. But when a magician performs a magic trick today, we all know it’s just a trick. It’s as if the really great magicians are appealing to our ancient longing for wonder and mystery and at the same time making us suspicious of that very longing. Like Ricky Jay in the video above, they seem to be mocking their art, inviting us to doubt it, and then with a flourish, for a second, they dare us to believe.