Essex magician

Abracadabra! The joy of experiencing magic

When trying to answer the question “Why is magic so popular?”, we need to understand the way our minds accept, or do not accept, the possible and impossible. And if you think the answer is as simple as suspending your disbelief, think again.

Dr Jason Leddington is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University in the USA. In his research paper, The Experience of Magic, he suggests that magic is theatre, where an event that seems impossible is performed as though it is possible. Similar to a film or theatrical performance, which depicts events that aren’t actually happening but appear to be – such as an on-screen murder. He says: “it is essential to a magic performance that impossible events actually appear to happen.” We all know it is a deception, in the same way that we understand fiction is a form of deception, but nevertheless commit ourselves to it in order to enjoy the experience.

It’s the same as the way we get shivers down our spines when watching horror movies, or cry at a sad story, even though we know the stories are completely fictional. Intellectually we know it’s impossible, but the way we experience emotions as though it’s real is the reason we enjoy it.

Suspension of disbelief

Dr Leddington goes on to dismiss the suspension of disbelief in terms of magic. Rather, he suggests that for magic to work, an audience needs ‘active disbelief’. The example he gives is that of watching a theatrical performance of Peter Pan. The actors appear to fly around the stage even though it is obvious they are suspended by visible wires. The audience is happy to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story as though the characters were really flying, and even to ‘edit’ out the wires in their imaginations.

On the other hand, it is a magician’s job to make the impossible appear possible. If a magician appeared to levitate, but the audience caught sight of a wire (not that a wire is necessarily used in such a trick of course – I’m not giving away any secrets here), the illusion would be ruined and the audience disappointed. According to Dr Leddington, “This is why it is a sign of a successful performance when an audience member exclaims, ‘No way!’ or, ‘Impossible!’” We enjoy magic, therefore, because it is a conflict of belief – something psychologists have come to term ‘alief’.


Alief is the state of contradiction when something appears to be one thing, but is actually something completely different. A good example would be the illusion cakes that we see on programmes such as the Great British Bake Off, where a clever baker can create a cake that looks like a BLT sandwich – your expectation at biting into it would be very different from the reality of the way it tastes. The alief is what makes the experience special. Similarly, a glass walkway, such as the one above Tower Bridge, looks horrifically daunting, yet the majority of us would be happy to walk on the glass. This is so we can experience the contradiction that we think we’re going to tumble into the Thames, combined with the knowledge that it’s as solid and safe as the rest of the flooring that we can’t see through.

So in actual fact, alief is my stock in trade. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to make so many people happy. Want further proof? Check out my gallery and videos to see the evidence. You won’t alieve what I can do! Get in touch.

Christopher Whitelock
25 Feb 2021

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