What magicians can teach us about mental health – Taipei Times

A study suggests that professional cheaters may be less prone to mental disorders. As a fan of life, I am not surprised

  • By Peter Ormerod / The Guardian

The fool is wise. The clown is sad. The trickster is honest. These may be cliches, but there is a truth to them. Artists who excel in their field often develop in contradictions; indeed, his art seems to depend on it. To know what you are, you need to know what you are not. This sense of conflict and tension, of two opposites being true simultaneously, is often where great art is born.

The strangest of all artists may be the magician. His art can include comedy, dance and drama; but there is another dimension to them. They are not enough of this world – the essence of their art is that it violates natural law. Part of what they evoke is a fleeting sense of madness, as they show us things that cannot happen. However, of all the artists, it transpires that it is the magicians who tend to have the soundest mind, the firmest grip on reality.

Aberystwyth University psychologists reported this week that magicians may be less prone to mental health problems than those who work in other art forms. In fact, they go further: the magicians they studied were less likely to experience phenomena such as hallucinations and cognitive disorganization than the general population.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Just as there can be many possible ways to create an illusion, there are many possible reasons why this may be the case. Magician Sara Crasson suggests a few: that many children turn to magic to confuse bullies and build confidence (Paul Daniels, for one, suffers from crushingly low self-esteem in his early years); that the craft requires great deliberation and clarity of thought; that wizards tend to form communities that offer support and encouragement.

And to be a magician is typically to be a student of magic: they probably know a lot about the history of the art form and have a sense of their place in it. But perhaps there are also deeper reasons, related to the very nature of his art.

It can be asserted with some confidence that the magician knows reality better than anyone else. The magician needs an understanding of the limits of possibility. They need to know what not to do. They must appreciate the human capacity for belief, and the methods by which that capacity can be exploited. The magician must also know wonder; they must have felt it themselves, and want to share that feeling.

Photo: AP

The magician knows his limitations. The magician knows that they cannot do magic. So does his audience. So a kind of sophisticated and elaborate theater is summoned into being: a realm of honest dishonesty.

The audience pays to be fooled by a professional deceiver, and this arrangement pleases everyone. The audience simultaneously desires to know the secret and fears the same knowledge, because knowing the secret destroys all illusion.

This may be because some of the greatest magicians have also been some of the greatest skeptics. John Nevil Maskelyne, one of the main stage acts in the Victorian era, discredited the claims of conjurors who claimed mystical powers, and exposed at least one fraudulent medium. Harry Houdini was an assiduous debunker of false mystics. More recently, Penn & Teller have made skepticism fundamental to their work.

James Randi has devoted much of his life to disproving claims of supernatural powers; he was particularly wary of the gullibility of scientists, who he believed were much easier to control than magicians. Those who know the ways of the conjurer know how they can be used to take advantage of the unwary.

Of course, wizards come in many forms. There are the pure entertainers, either from the tradition of Daniels’ typical British patter, or the great illusionists more associated with the United States; these do not pretend to be more than skilled artists (when David Copperfield makes the moon disappear in February, as he promised, no one will believe that it has really ceased to exist).

Then there are the more ambiguous types, such as David Blaine, or, to some extent, Derren Brown, or late master, David Berglas, whose people convey a sense of enigma, and which the audience can seem to sometimes under a kind of spell.

There are also those who say that they work real miracles. There are magicians who imagine, invent, push the boundaries of the possible; there are magicians who refine the work of others, or who simply try to repeat it. The study notes that “many magicians do familiar tricks or variations of them without feeling the need to innovate,” putting them in contrast to other creative types. It would be interesting to know how each type of magician could do in the university research.

But ultimately, the magician’s magic requires a rooting in reality. This does not mean that magicians have never struggled with their mental health – and we can be aware of some particularly tragic examples. But knowing the real from the illusory or the illusion, while also celebrating the wonder, sounds like a sensible way to maintain mental health as any work provides.

Medical professionals say there are five steps to mental wellness: connect with other people; being physically active; learn new skills; give to others; and pay attention to the present moment. That, and much more, is the life of the magician, those strange people who may have found the secret of an extraordinary normality.

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