Magic, Wonder, and the History of Psychology

Alfred Binet

Two recent articles explore the intersecting histories of magic and psychology. A piece in The American Journal of Psychology describes Alfred Binet’s scientific studies of magic, while a forthcoming article in the Review of General Psychology explores the psychological experience of wonder in relation to magic tricks. Full details below.

“Scientific Study of Magic: Binet’s Pioneering Approach Based on Observations and Chronophotography,” Cyril Thomas, André Didierjean and Serge Nicolas. The abstract reads

In 1894, French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911) published an article titled “The Psychology of Prestidigitation” that reported the results of a study conducted in collaboration with two of the best magicians of that period. By using a new method and new observation techniques, Binet was able to reveal some of the psychological mechanisms involved in magic tricks. Our article begins by presenting Binet’s method and the principal professional magicians who participated in his studies. Next, we present the main psychological tools of magicians described by Binet and look at some recent studies dealing with those mechanisms. Finally, we take a look at the innovative technique used by Binet for his study on magic: the chronophotograph.

“A Particular Kind of Wonder: The Experience of Magic Past and Present,” Peter Lamont. The abstract reads,

Wonder may be an important emotion, but the term wonder is remarkably ambiguous. For centuries, in psychological discourse, it has been defined as a variety of things. In an attempt to be more focused, and given the growing scientific interest in magic, this article describes a particular kind of wonder: the response to a magic trick. It first provides a historical perspective by considering continuity and change over time in this experience, and argues that, in certain respects, this particular kind of wonder has changed. It then describes in detail the experience of magic, considers the extent to which it might be considered acquired rather than innate, and how it relates to other emotions, such as surprise. In the process, it discusses the role of belief and offers some suggestions for future research. It concludes by noting the importance of context and meaning in shaping the nature of the experience, and argues for the value of both experimental and historical research in the attempt to understand such experiences.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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