Tag Archives: belief

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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Interview: Lamont on Extraordinary Beliefs

As recently announced on AHP, a new book by historian of psychology, and magician, Peter Lamont has just been released. AHP had the pleasure of interviewing Lamont about his new book: Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological ProblemThe full interview follows below.

AHP: How did you become interested in the history of extraordinary beliefs and the role of psychologists in supporting and challenging the existence of extraordinary phenomena?

PL: Well, I used to be a magician (but I’m alright now). As a history student, I funded my studies by working as a close-up magician. Later, I joined the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, based within the Psychology department, to work on the psychology of magic. Since then, I’ve combined my interests in history, magic and the paranormal, and since I now work as a historian in a Psychology department, it seemed only polite to discuss the role of psychologists in all this.

AHP: It seems as though psychologists have been investigating extraordinary phenomena – including mesmeric, spiritualist, psychic, and paranormal phenomena – since the very beginning of scientific psychology. Why did the discipline take such an early interest in the extraordinary?

PL: One reason, as others have long pointed out, is boundary-work. Psychical Research was an ideal Other by which scientific psychologists could construct their own scientific credentials and worth. But the same arguments were going on well before the birth of the academic discipline, and I think it makes more sense to see this as something with wider relevance, as an opportunity for people (including psychologists, because psychologists are people too) to construct their own expertise and worth. Continue reading Interview: Lamont on Extraordinary Beliefs

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The Making of the Extraordinary

To coincide with the release of his book, Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem, historian of psychology Peter Lamont paid a visit to the University of Surrey in February. As the University website describes,

On the 19th of February 2013, Dr Peter Lamont, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, presented an evening of magic, history and psychology to a packed house at the University of Surrey’s new Ivy Arts Centre.

The event was co-sponsored by the BPS Wessex Branch and the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey. Earlier that day, Dr Lamont was interviewed by the Psychologist Dr Peter Hegarty about past and present exchanges between psychologists and magicians.

Hegarty’s interview with Lamont is shown in the video above. In the course of just three minutes Lamont briefly touches on not only the relationship between psychologists and magicians, but also the importance of historical work for psychological understanding. If you like the video, it may be time to go out and buy the book!

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New Book: Peter Lamont’s Extraordinary Beliefs

A new book by historian of psychology, and magician, Peter Lamont has just been released. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem offers an account of the continuing appeal of the extraordinary. As described on the Cambridge University Press website:

Since the early nineteenth century, mesmerists, mediums and psychics have exhibited extraordinary phenomena. These have been demonstrated, reported and disputed by every modern generation. We continue to wonder why people believe in such things, while others wonder why they are dismissed so easily. Extraordinary Beliefs takes a historical approach to an ongoing psychological problem: why do people believe in extraordinary phenomena? It considers the phenomena that have been associated with mesmerism, spiritualism, psychical research and parapsychology. By drawing upon conjuring theory, frame analysis and discourse analysis, it examines how such phenomena have been made convincing in demonstration and report, and then disputed endlessly. It argues that we cannot understand extraordinary beliefs unless we properly consider the events in which people believe, and what people believe about them. And it shows how, in constructing and maintaining particular beliefs about particular phenomena, we have been in the business of constructing ourselves.

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