Science and Magic: A Bidirectional Relationship

Science and Magic: A Bidirectional Relationship appeared in the Journal of Magic Research, Issue 6, January 2015.A complex symbiosis exists between magic and science.1 On the one hand, science and magic are each other’s opposites, while on the other hand, they are often great companions. This complex relationship can be summarised by the fact that magicians present theatrical illusions in which the laws of science have been breached, while often using the principles of science itself. The relationship between science and magic is, however, bidirectional. Magicians do not only use science to create the illusion of supernatural magic, scientists also study magicians and their magic in order to learn more about the world around us.

This article provides an overview of the different fields of science that have a relationship with magic. It is an extract from the book Perspectives on Magic, which presents a comprehensive review and bibliography of the many scientific views of theatrical magic.

Perspectives on Magic: Scientific Views on Theatrical Magic - science and magicMost of the estimated half a million magicians around the world are amateurs or semi-professionals that are otherwise also engaged as lawyers, occupational therapists, psychologists, computer scientists, teachers and so on. Many of these scientists and professionals write scholarly papers and books about their passion. The word ‘science’ is usually reserved for the natural sciences, but the scientific work on conjuring illustrates the fact that science is a much broader concept that discusses the full spectrum of human experience and the natural world. To fully understand a complex phenomenon such as magic, a range of perspectives beyond the natural sciences should be included. Scientists and professionals from two domains of science have studied the art of conjuring: the social sciences and the applied sciences, each asking their own specific questions of magic.

The largest field of study with links to theatrical magic are the social sciences. The social sciences, sometimes also called the humanities or behavioural sciences, study everything people do, think or believe. Scholars in the social sciences are not necessarily seeking a final answer to their questions but are engaged in an ongoing narrative to improve our understanding. From the perspective of the social sciences, a wide variety of questions can be asked of conjuring: Why are there more male than female magicians? What was the cultural significance of the popularity of magic at the end of the nineteenth century? Is magic entertainment or a performance art? The social sciences cover a wide-ranging field of studies that can help answer these questions. Most important to conjuring are performance studies and cultural history, which researches the act of performing magic shows in the present and in the past. Researchers in film theory, linguistics and gender studies have also published their ideas of theatrical magic. The social sciences place the performance of magic in its historical or contemporary context. The answers provided by scholars in humanities help us to understand both society itself and the role magicians play within it. The largest body of research relating to magic is in the field of psychology. Pioneers in this field, such as Alfred Binet, recognised already in the nineteenth century that studying the tricks performed by magicians could teach us about how the mind works. Magicians have extensive experience with using the weaknesses of our perception mechanisms to create illusions. Research on the psychology of magic is currently a very active field and a plethora of journal articles has been published in recent years. In psychology, the main question being asked is how our brains can be so easily deceived into perceiving something that is not true. Studying both magicians and more importantly, the reactions of their audiences provide an insight into how the human brain processes information and helps us better understand how we experience the world in general.

In the applied sciences, such as health care and teaching, the fruits of the labour of natural scientists, formal scientists and social scientists are used to improve people’s lives. Engineers use the theories of physics to build bridges or manufacture computers, and health care professionals implement the latest findings in biology to improve our health, and so on. It is in these fields of human endeavour that magic fulfils a practical role. The health sciences are a fertile field for magicians to participate in, especially in occupational therapy where magic tricks are used to assist with improving people’s abilities and self-esteem. Magic tricks are also used in psychotherapy to help diagnosis of mental conditions and magic has been used to reduce anxiety in children subjected to medical treatment. Another applied science where magic can help professionals perform their tasks is teaching. Many magic tricks are based on the principles of physics, chemistry or mathematics, which makes magic a perfect tool for playfully illustrating the abstract concepts of these sciences.

The table below provides an overview of the bidirectional relationship between science and magic. This table is based on extensive bibliographical research on scholarly publications that study theatrical magic. This table shows, for example, that anthropology is not used as a method in magic, but is a field that studies magicians..Linguistics on the other hand can be used as a method and has also been applied to the study of magicians.

Field Discipline Magic Trick
Magic and
Social sciences Anthropology X
Gender Studies X
Film Studies X
History X
Legal Studies X
Library Science X
Linguistics X  X
Performance Studies X X
Psychology X X
Sociology X X
Applied Sciences Business studies X
Engineering X
Dentistry X
Education X
Information Technology X X
Medicine X
Mental Health Care X
Nursing X
Occupational Therapy X
Formal Sciences Mathematics X
 Information Theory X
Physical Sciences Physics X
Chemistry X

  1. This article appeared in the Journal of Magic Research, Issue 6, January 2015. 

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