Science | Page 53

“ Magic Sam ” performs for students in the Cognitive Science of Magic course during their visit to the Chicago Magic Lounge .


I ’ m a psychologist . Not the kind of psychologist who helps people . I do experiments . Specifically , I am a cognitive psychologist : an experimental psychologist who studies the building blocks of thought with a goal of better understanding the relationships between thought and behavior . Before I was a psychologist , I was a magician . Like many magicians , I was drawn to psychology through my firsthand experience with the fallibility of memory and perception . However , as an undergraduate studying psychology , I had no idea that magic would continue to be central to my career .
Indeed , as a doctoral student at Arizona State University , I had no plan for magic to be anything more than a hobby I pursued on the side while formally studying the psychology of language . That changed when I began to see scientists taking an interest in the methods of magicians to inspire new hypotheses and laboratory techniques in the study of attention and perception . Thanks to the help of a supportive mentor , I was able to add a new focus to my doctoral work , studying the means by which magicians manipulate their audience ’ s attention . My doctoral dissertation , an empirical study of the magician ’ s “ off beat ,” was likely among the first dissertations in the new science of magic discipline . 1
As a midcareer faculty member in the Department of Psychological Science at Carthage College in Kenosha , Wisconsin , magic pervades nearly everything I do as a teacher-scholar . Part of scientists ’ enthusiasm for this new topic of study comes from its ability to bridge between artificial , contrived laboratory experiments and real , lived experience in the world . Magic is applied cognitive science , and as such , it can be a useful educational tool to exemplify abstract concepts from psychology . I became aware of this powerful application of magic when teaching my first course as a graduate student , a basic Introductory Psychology course . When I taught the section on sensation and perception , I used a magic trick to demonstrate some of the assumptions that our visual system makes
1 ) The first dissertation on the psychology of magic was undertaken by Norman Triplett in 1900 , who is also credited with carrying out the first experiment in social psychology . I published some of the findings from my dissertation in the scientific journal Attention , Perception , & Psychophysics ( Barnhart et al ., 2018 ). when presented with ambiguous information . 2 Not only did the inclusion of a magic performance capture the students ’ curiosity , but it offered a salient reminder of how automatic and unconscious these perceptual assumptions can be and provided a strong memory hook that allowed students to return to the example readily .
This early experience using magic in the classroom only hinted at the broader role that magic can play in an educational setting . After 15 years teaching in higher education , I have come to realize that inspiring curiosity and wonder in students is the most basic role that magic can play . On the opposite end of the continuum , I believe that the science of magic is an ideal sandbox for student engagement with STEAM education .
STEAM is a current buzzword in education . It is an acronym for Science , Technology , Engineering , Arts , and Mathematics . Proponents of STEAM argue that the world ’ s problems will be solved most efficiently through the col-
2 ) This became the topic of my first scientific publication on magic in the pages of the journal Perception ( Barnhart , 2010 ).