What pulls us to magic? Is it something deep and inexplicable, or can we understand it as wonder?
When I was young, I really and truly thought that if I stared at something for long enough, and with the right emphasis, it would move.
Quite seriously, I practised it over and over again, alone in my room. I eyed my lamp, small books, socks, my sister — willing them to do what I wanted. Just move an inch, I thought. I knew Matilda was a made-up story about a made-up girl discovering she could do made-up magic, but I still imagined that with enough practice, I could do what she did.
I believed there was undiscovered magic inside me.
Now, I’m not saying I believe in magic as an adult. (I don’t read my horoscope or try to manifest my desires through visualization, and I always prefer walking under ladders as opposed to around them when given the chance.)
Yet, even for the most un-superstitious adult, there are still things that can provoke wonder and bring us to a state of awe.
It’s not exactly like the magic we imagined when we were kids, but our neurochemistry doesn’t know that.
Take science, for instance. There are some things we know to be true because we perceive them: The moon revolves around the Earth. It is scientifically true and it makes sense to us; it matches our perception.
But, there are things that are just as scientifically true that also defy our perceptions.
The sun, for example, looks like it’s circling the Earth. It comes up over the horizon every morning and drops down on the other side of the horizon every evening.
Of course, we know now that the Earth rotates around the sun and not the other way around. But, at one point, humans didn’t know that.
Astronomers realised that even though the planets were supposedly circling the Earth along with the sun, they kept appearing to go retrograde, or backward, in the sky.
Weird, they thought.
So they came up with a mathematical explanation they thought plausible: The planets are circling around the earth, just like the sun is, but they’re also rotating in small circles as they complete their big circle.
Copernicus — a mathematician and astronomer— however, didn’t think that was right and decided to look into it and better answers.
So he did…and he discovered that the Earth and the other planets actually revolve around the sun.
My point in dredging up astronomical history is this: What we don’t understand, thrills us. Sometimes, that thrill makes us want to find out the truth, like in the case of Copernicus.
Other times — and this is where magic comes back into the equation — that thrill makes us not want to discover the truth, lest the thrill goes away.
The thrill of the undiscovered is called wonder, and it’s hard-wired into our brains.
Our minds are designed to discover new things. Infants, studies have shown, learn by exploring. They prefer new things and experiences when given the choice. In an evolutionary sense, we are born to explore our surroundings so we have the information we need to survive.
However, when something happens that goes against what we know to be true about the world — seeing a person fly or being sawed in half for example — we are intrigued.
We ask, how is that possible? And because we don’t know, we’re hooked.
Gustav Kuhn, a psychologist who has researched the science of magic once said, “Our true perception is full of gaps and holes…”
Scientists and others have wondered about this concept of mystery and curiosity, throughout history, and created many experiments to test it.
One such experiment tracked brain activity before, during, and after revealing an image of a person from the subject’s past. When the subjects anticipated seeing an image of someone they once knew (before an image of that person was revealed), the subjects’ brains fired up. Once they had the images revealed, however, brain activity actually died down.
Over and over again, the same thing happened. Brains lit up at the idea of a mystery and quieted down once the mystery was solved.
And the thing that was firing in the brain? Well, it’s the famous pleasure chemical, dopamine.
Turns out that wondering about mysterious and unknown things gives us a stronger hit of dopamine than one of curiosity satisfied.
Going back to magic, what if we lived in a world where that dopamine hit could be felt day in and day out? In other words, what if we lived in a world where the thrill of magic — an unknown and unexplainable phenomenon— was real? What else drives us to read a book about a child who is forced to live in a cupboard or makes us go to a magic show where we know for a fact that we will be fooled?
The answer, folks, is that we’re addicted to feeling good. We like living in our imaginations and wondering what could be because it’s a pleasurable experience.
Well, that’s what science says.
Scientists seek to pull back the curtain on their wonder. That’s how things are discovered and revealed. But when we consume stories of magic (or magic tricks, for that matter), we don’t look behind the curtain.
Magical stories keep us in a state of suspended wonder.
Have you ever heard of the sword in the stone? It’s a perfect example of a magical story that is physically impossible yet beloved.
Depending on the story, Arthur pulls the sword from a stone, an anvil, or a lake. No matter which version you have heard, read or seen, pulling a sword out of stone can’t be scientifically explained. Yet, that small fact hasn’t stopped generations from devouring the story and reimagining it over and over.
You may say, only children have this sense of wonder, as they are the only ones experiencing created magic. But that’s not true.
If magical books and films and theatre aren’t your preference, you still aren’t off the hook. There are plenty of things we can’t explain that cause us to wonder and still give us that chemical thrill.
For you, maybe it comes from looking at a beautiful sunset over the ocean or a view from the top of a mountain. Maybe it’s seeing more stars than your brain can comprehend in the vast sky. Perhaps it’s simply seeing a celebrity in person for the first time or catching a glimpse of a cat sitting in the sun.
These experiences still evoke wonder and amazement. They can be explained and dissected of course, but the wonder they spark is beautiful in itself.
We like the way we feel when we get to wonder about what’s beyond our perception. Without wonder, religion probably wouldn’t exist, or fiction or art. There probably wouldn’t even be science.
The combination of curiosity and awe propels us to think beyond our perception to find great mysteries.
It also, of course, propels us to enjoy a really good magic trick.