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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 December 2006, 11:35 GMT
Playing mind games
By Daniel Sokol

Daniel Sokol - Picture: Russell Sach/ Times Higher
Daniel Sokol shows his hand

Tackling robbers, calming aggressive crowds, helping the sick... magicians can use their skill to get out of real-life tight corners.

Magicians are an odd bunch. They spend many solitary hours practising in front of the mirror, vanishing small objects, making them reappear in unexpected places, burning and restoring money, throwing cards in the air or at the ceiling, all the while talking and laughing to themselves to practise their patter and misdirection.

Most of the time, magicians use their skills to entertain, in shows, parties and restaurants. Occasionally, they use them to help companies and organisations. Some magicians advise casinos and corporations on how to detect cheating and fraud, even testifying as expert witnesses in court.

Others act as consultants in theatres, working with actors and directors to perform seemingly impossible effects, such as creating ghosts or producing balls of fire from a person's hand.

Exploiting

Magic combines psychological manipulation and sleight-of-hand. To secretly remove a spectator's watch, for example, you need to direct his attention away from his watch-bearing wrist.

A spectator will look where the magician looks. Once the spectator's attention is directed away from the crucial spot, the magician can remove the watch using a number of methods in two or three seconds.

He will reveal it only later, when the spectator cannot work out when the "steal" occurred - this is known as "time misdirection". Pickpockets have used these powerful tools for centuries, despite the danger in the Middle Ages of execution if caught.

Paul Daniels
Paul Daniels did magic for young offenders

In fact, many pickpockets operated during the public hangings of their fellow pickpockets, exploiting the inherent interest of the scene to steal with relative ease.

A magician's skills can be applied in all sorts of situations, for both virtuous and criminal purposes.

Last April, David Copperfield and two of his assistants were confronted by armed robbers as they left a performance in West Palm Beach, Florida. While his two female companions handed over their belongings, Copperfield allegedly showed his pockets empty although they contained his wallet, passport and mobile phone.

He called this impromptu technique "reverse pickpocketing" and attributed his composure under pressure to his experience as a showman and magician. Yet fooling criminals is but one use of magic.

In the United States, a number of magicians work with therapists to help young people suffering from depression, low self-esteem and substance abuse, as well as victims of stroke and head injuries.

Healing hands

In 1982, David Copperfield reached into his deep pockets to create Project Magic, a rehabilitation programme now used in thousands of hospitals across the world and accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association.

The Healing of Magic is another successful American project, created by two professional illusionists. Magicians visit hospitals and teach tricks to patients and their therapists, explaining the techniques involved, the psychology behind the trick and ideas for presentation.

Depending on the patient, the goal of these programmes is to improve motor and cognitive skills, raise self-esteem and relieve boredom. With practice, patients can perform effects that baffle their able-bodied counterparts.

Occupational therapy
Magic helps with occupational therapy

Magic and medicine, once inseparable bedfellows but now rarely on speaking terms in the Western world, are happily reunited in the work of these therapeutic magicians.

There can also be more immediate uses for magic - as I found in North Africa.

The imposing Jemaa el Fnaa square in Marrakech, Morocco, bustles with activity. Locals eat and chat at the dozens of smoky food stalls, school children, sitting around enormous vats, devour marinated snails by the bowlful, snake charmers proudly display their writhing reptiles, and story tellers recount tales of yore to huddled congregations.

While I soak in the sights, a monkey suddenly appears on my shoulder. The friendly primate belongs to a local man, dressed in traditional Moroccan clothes, who encourages my partner and me to take photos. A few clicks later, the man asks for a huge sum.

Crowd control

My polite protestations are met only with aggression and simulated outrage. As we walk away, he follows us with renewed anger, hurling insults.

After failed attempts to negotiate a reasonable price, I take a handkerchief from my pocket, wipe my brow, and vanish it. For once he goes quiet, stares at my empty hands, and summons his friends. The handkerchief reappears. They cheer and let us pass.

Why, in an age of special effects and scientific miracles, is magic still alive? Why did my Moroccan friend relax when seeing the trick?

Daniel Sokol performing
Re-discover a 'child's sense of awe'
Magicians will offer different explanations. My own view is that magic, in the right hands and performed close to the spectator, is an invitation to wonder, to step outside the ordinary confines of the intellect.

For a brief moment, the spectator's anxieties vanish to make way for wonderment. The Moroccan man, upon seeing the handkerchief disappear, no longer cared for my money. His mind was elsewhere.

Magic can recreate in many adults those sublime, awe-filled moments of childhood. For this reason, magic will continue to thrive.

So if you buy a magic set for Christmas, do not underestimate what lies in the box. Tolerate the early days, the requests for attention, the flawed performances, and the curious mumblings emerging from the bedroom. In the future, that budding magician could prove a most useful ally.

Dr Daniel Sokol is a medical ethicist at Keele University, director of the Applied Clinical Ethics course at Imperial College London, and a semi-professional magician.


Your comments

Strangely, there is no mention of Derren Brown! Now THAT is a talented manipulator. I have seen him live, and he hoodwinked a theatre full of us in the most remarkable way. His indirection was so effective, I can't to THIS DAY figure out how he 'did it' all (He tells you SOME of his secrets (or so you think..) but not all.) He is an excellent people watcher, and even proved on television that he could coerce people into 'robbing a bank!' A very interesting study, and an excellent example of how an interest in an art or study can improve individuals and society.
Kevin Foad, Caerphilly

Fascinating and well written article, made me think about the uses of magic aside from entertainment.
Andreas Barker, Basingstoke

An excellent mind trick to use if you are hosting a party - particularly over the festive season... I've used it many times.

Nice piece. Here is my experience: I was wheel clammped by a 'cowboy' clamper on private ground and asked 8o for release. I had to go round the corner to the bank for the money-4 x 20. Put in an unsealed envelope. On return I showed the cowboy the money, into the envelope, sealed the envelope. " Do you mind if I keep the envelope in my wallet until release?". So saying, envelope goes into my Himber Wallet! "No, you let my mate in the van keep it" says the cwboy. "O.K. Put in your pocket to keep it safe (and to stop you opening it too soon!).!" I open the other side of the Himber and extract another envelope. Clamp off. I depart- before the cowboys open the envelope to discover newspaper! Every best wish,
Dr. Richard Rawlins FRCS MMC, Kingswear, Dartmouth, Devon, England. Member of The Magic Circle

Is it not the case that clip board tricksters can con us into giving away personal details, for the purposes of identity theft? misdirection and confidence are the stock in trade of all hucksters. Ask any Lothario too, come to mention it. We gain something on our fellow man when we command his attention, by whatever means necessary. What else has Derren Brown been telling us all this time?
James, Newcastle, UK

When your guests arrive and start filling your fridge with their drink - announce to them that instead of throwing out their empty bottles and cans into the bin, that they should put them in the corner of the kitchen/cardboard box/etc because you are going to take them to be recycled. The next morning - your house will be tidy. Your guests will all put their empties in the designated area - not realising that they would have normally left them lying about the house rather than have put them in the bin. You won't have a quarter of the tidying up to do - and you're mates won't realise they have been tricked. Works every time!!!
Alan, East Kilbride, Scotland

Many of my friends use magic in every day life. Such as the magical ability to disappear when it is their round. Or magically forget when it is their turn to do various household chores.
Bob Jones, Lancaster

Magicians have great multi-tasking skills for the real world. The ability of a magician to think 'outside of the box' means he or she is less likely to fall foul to a scam artist. It takes a trickster to spot a trickster. This is especially true when investigating paranormal phenomenon. It's time the public realised the true skills of the modern day magi.
Derek heron, Falkirk, Scotland

Tony Blair must be the 'Daddy'of all magicians.
John, Derbyshire UK

I had a 10p trick when I was a young teenager; and I could use it to lure people into giving me 10p, letting them watch it dissapear, and then I'd buy sweets.
James Morrison, Leeds

I think close up magic is so enchanting *because* we've grown up with special effects. We know that almost anything is possible with a few cameras, a green screen and a computer. We've come to expect that. A magician though takes away the technology and in front of your eyes they create magic. No cameras. No technology. Just magic.
Peter Wilson, Welwyn Garden City

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