One way that I spent my free time in between classes in university was participating in psychology experiments as a study subject. The study topics were fascinating to me and it was a good way to earn some cash in those breaks that were too short for productive studying and too long for not being productive. I spent so much time in the Psychology building at one point that some of the staff thought I worked there.
What I remember most about my time there was, magic. One of the grad students in the attention lab, Alym, was a magician. During an explanation of the experiment, or a debrief, Alym would let me hold a coin in my hand and switch it out for another coin (one of even quite a different size) right underneath my nose. Another time, he stopped talking mid-sentence, asked to see my pen, and proceeded to shake a coin out of my unsuspecting pen cap, onto my outstretched palm. One time, when he gave me my $10 compensation for participating in the study, I challenged him, “Why don’t you make it appear in my pocket?”; and he did! I always left his lab delighted.
Alym understood, more than anyone else, that magic – the art of creating illusions – has a strong basis in science. When I look beyond the magic trick and realize what it is says about how our senses are translated into our unique experience of the world, I never cease to be amazed by how complex of an organism we are. Part of the fascination lies in how selective our interpretation of the world can be and how easily we are fooled by our expectations. Even as we navigate the world attempting to be objective, magic, shows us how much of a myth our own objectivity can be.
More importantly, magic puts us in touch with our universal need to at times, let go of our rationality and submit ourselves to the pure experience of wonder. It allows us a socially acceptable way to become children again. I wish I could experience magic more often. Magic can teach us a lot about how our brains work, including how these momentary interactions with someone I barely knew remain so unforgettable to me after so many years.