Berwins Book Reviews

Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic by Gustav Kuhn

Martin Whincup, Associate Director of Berwins Solicitors, reads Experiencing the Impossible: The Science of Magic by Gustav Kuhn ahead of Berwins Salon North: Inner Workings on 23 January 2020. Read on to hear his thoughts…

When a magic trick is performed in front of us, we’re almost pre-programmed to ask, ‘how did you do that?’, as though the magician holds some special – but simply explained – powers of deception.

In Experiencing the Impossible Gustav Kuhn poses the question we should really be asking – ‘why did that work?’. That’s actually a more interesting question and one Kuhn goes on to answer by arguing that “magic relies on deception and secrecy, but this should not prevent us from studying this systematically”.

Looking first at the practice of magic, he goes on to explore how the art form really works and why it’s something much deeper than just a case of suspended belief or optical illusion.

What is particularly fascinating is Kuhn’s exploration of the way our perceptions, experiences and backgrounds add a further layer of complexity to the picture. That challenge to make sure an illusion fits the audience makes the feat of illusion all the more impressive. Magic isn’t as black and white as that ‘how’ question supposes and slight of hand alone doesn’t make a conjuror.

Taken further, the concept isn’t one reserved for those who choose to stand on a stage, before a television camera or in a glass box. There are lessons for us all – not least marketers, for whom the art of encouraging people to react in a certain way to a specific message – though a carefully honed piece of text or design is more usual than a top hat and wand – sits at the heart of everyday work.

Magic doesn’t happen ‘just like that’, it’s built on the work of generations of entertainers, philosophers and psychologies. The science of magic is a melting pot of ideas, disciplines and beliefs.