Category

Abracademy Labs

The Magical Self

By | Abracademy Labs, Belief, What's new?

Can we enhance our inner belief without crossing the rivers of self-doubt? Can we change how we feel about ourselves… by waving a magic wand?

It may sound surprising, but researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently published a review of experiments on how magic might enhance wellbeing (Bagienski & Kuhn, 2019). And they observed that increased pride and self-esteem were common in studies where participants either discovered secrets to magic tricks or learned to perform magic.

To be fair, most of these studies involved populations with low self-esteem and some had methodological flaws, so more research is needed. But the available results do look promising.  And by looking at theoretical models of self-esteem, we find some fascinating reasons for why magic may improve self-esteem.

One common argument in these studies is that learning magic develops an impressive skill that most others cannot perform (Frith & Walker, 1983). And this speaks to two common psychological theories of what causes of self-esteem:  

The first was put forth by William James (1892) on how self-esteem arises when perceived success in “valued domains” aligns with our aspirations. And who doesn’t value a bit of magic and fantasy, like the magic we see in movies, novels, or games? In fact, this was supported by an experiment that concluded: “a novel and unusual event elicits stronger curiosity and exploratory behaviour if its suggested explanation involves an element of the supernatural” (Subbotsky, 2010). Additionally, people value secret knowledge and society marvels when people achieve the impossible. Both are in magic. Lastly, people are driven to figure out how magic tricks work. For all these reasons, it makes sense that magic is valued. So we could feel better about ourselves by learning magic successfully.

The strange part is how magic focuses the impossible… Because people tend to set their aspirations in the realm of possibility, but magic achieves the “impossible”. Thus, at a certain imaginary level, learning to learning magic must exceed one’s aspirations. And this experience is at least somewhat grounded in reality because social reactions to magic imply that the impossible became possible!This latter social aspect also aligns with Cooley’s (1902) model of self-esteem. In his model, self-esteem is caused by opinions of significant others who act like a “social mirror.” This idea of a social mirror also helps explain why improved social skills were observed in magic studies, but only when participants learned to perform magic (Bagienski & Kuhn, 2019). One reason might be that reactions to magic resemble an interested, enthusiastic response. And these responses would act as social validation. They are also very similar to the responses that scientists found to form positive relationships (Bagienski & Kuhn, 2019; Gable, Gonzaga, & Strachman, 2006; Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004). 

Another reason why magic could improve social skills is because magic is one of the only art forms that deliberately uses speech and social cues for its misdirection (Scott, Batten, & Kuhn, 2018). Thus, learning magic can be a natural fit for improving social skills. And when your social skills are sharp, you feel good about yourself because you can better cultivate the supportive, meaningful relationships that make life beautiful.

References:

Bagienski, S. E., & Kuhn, G. (2019). The crossroads of magic and wellbeing: A review of wellbeing-focused magic programs, empirical studies, and conceivable theories. International Journal of Wellbeing, 9(2).

Cooley, C. (1902). Looking-glass self. The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings on Social Interaction, 6. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=8FKzamiVX4sC&oi=fnd&pg=PA126&ots=13LOPWoq3y&sig=KiOgsxExuoBtH_5XD-CHBlcriJc

Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904–917. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.904

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228–245. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.87.2.228

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Scott, H., Batten, J. P., & Kuhn, G. (2018). Why are you looking at me? It’s because I’m talking, but mostly because I’m staring or not doing much. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 81(1), 109–118. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-018-1588-6

Talk to Harriet about inner belief for your team

Get in touch

Words on Wonder

By | Abracademy Labs, Belief, Curiosity, Food for thought, What's new?, Wonder

Scientist, mathematician and magician, Matt Pritchard, is interested in what makes people go WOW! ?

You probably know by now that at Abracademy, we want to bring more magic to the world. It’s our raison d’etre! And you probably also know that all our workshops are all founded on two mindsets inspired by magic – Belief and Wonder. So, when we came across Matt Pritchard’s Words on Wonder blog, we were hooked…

In his blog, Matt chats with other magicians, creatives and scientists about their work, particularly how they cultivate, and share wonder. One fundamental question he asks, that helps the reader understand what motivates each of his guests, is: Why are you interested in researching the science of magic? Here’s some of the answers to that question, starting with our own Wizard of Happiness and wellbeing researcher, Steve Bagienski: 

I can’t think of a more personally befitting and meaningful thing to do than explore magic and wellbeing. There are so many directions my research could go, but I am focused on the social and emotional experiences of watching, and learning, magic. I really do believe that our relationships with others are what matters most in life, it’s how we become part of something bigger than ourselves. I would love more scientists to explore the many nuances, but for me, my PhD project is a good place to start. (Follow Steve on Twitter)

On a different note, Ph.D student and associate lecturer in the Psychology of Magic at London’s Goldsmiths University, Alice Pailhes, studies how unconscious influences shape our choices and the illusion of free will with the help of a magician’s technique known as ‘forcing’:

Since I started studying psychology I became really interested in social psychology – how our environment affects our choices and behaviours. As we are constantly making decisions (as trivial and small as what to eat for lunch, but also important ones such as what career or partner to choose), I started to be really fascinated by understanding why we do the things we do, and how we’re influenced by a number of factors. I find the illusion of free will, as well as how we think we chose something when we didn’t, really captivating. As I’ve always loved magic and do a little myself, I quickly made a link with some tricks I knew: forcing techniques. Forcing is a way to make spectators pick or think about a specific card or object without them being aware that they were influenced. Magicians have been using forcing techniques and processes for hundred of years that psychology only understood a few decades ago! I think we have a lot to learn from magicians’ knowledge. (Follow Alice on Twitter)

Last, but certainly not least, Lise Lesaffre Lise is exploring magic, not so much in practice, but rather from a cognitive experimental perspective:

I use magic to investigate belief formation. More particularly, I use a sort of mentalism routine that makes the audience think they are in front of a genuine psychic. I take measurements before and after about their beliefs, and associated cognitive bias. We found that when the performance is convincing, the audience get really emotional and most people believe what they saw was a genuine psychic demonstration – more than 60% reported the performer was a genuine psychic! (Visit Lise’s webpage to find out more about her research).

We’ve often said that magicians are masters of human behaviour. You can see from these responses that science and magic make very natural companions, helping us understand the human brain and how it works.

Read the full interviews here. And big thanks to Matt, Steve, Alice and Lise for sharing their thoughts with us.

Find out how we combine science and magic

Get in touch

Conjuring creativity

By | Abracademy Labs, Food for thought, Magical Moments, Wonder

Have you ever wondered how magicians both imagine and create the impossible? Or how visionaries like Elon Musk created Tesla, a disruptive automotive company? In the past, “magical” is how people would describe ideas like a high-performance car that plugs in or powering an entire island with the sun.

One thing such visionaries have in common is creativity. Creative people have a few things in common (Kaufman, 2014). One common trait is being open to new experiences, having a large hunger for exploration. (This trait is analogous to the joyful exploration mentioned in a previous blog: The Five Dimensions of Curiosity.)

The two other traits – divergent and convergent thinking – involve the thinking processes. Divergent thinking is the ability to generate a large quantity of ideas, including ones that stray from the traditional. While convergent thinking narrows the ideas or solutions down to the most useful ones. The highly creative brain behind Nintendo games, Shigeru Miyamoto, sums it up nicely:

“A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once”

A key point is the number of problems an idea solves. In work, and in life generally, we’re always working on multiple problems. And because each solution has its unique trade-offs, the real challenge is finding an idea that can solve multiple problems at once.

And how do we measure creativity? One way that scientists measure it is by assessing whether people can find a common word that relates to three seemingly different words. This is known as a Remote Associates Test. This test can be long and tedious, but there is an extremely similar (and more fun!) improv exercise known as I Am a Tree – actors use this to strengthen their ability to think on the spot.

Aside from improv exercises, creativity researcher, Scott Barry Kaufman also suggests that you can hack your creativity by making time for solitude, trying certain types of meditation, embracing adversity and intentionally aiming to think differently. This last one is essential for creating magic, since the best magicians must envision drastically different explanations for their tricks to the point where no one would ever even guess its secret. In fact, one study on creativity showed that watching magical content was effective at increasing participants’ divergent thinking skills (Subbotsky, Hysted, Jones, 2010). So perhaps, the only thing we really need is a little bit of magic to spark our own creative flair to enable us to thrive in this constantly changing world of innovation.

Steve
Resident Wizard of Science

Get in touch with the team

Get in touch

References

 

Kaufman, S.B. (2014, December 24). The Messy Minds of Creative People. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-messy-minds-of-creative-people

Subbotsky, E., Hysted, C., & Jones, N. (2010). Watching films with magical content facilitates creativity in children. Perceptual and motor skills, 111(1), 261-277.

Eurogamer.net (2010, March 31). Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/shigeru-miyamoto-interview

The Five Dimensions of Curiosity

By | Abracademy Labs, Food for thought, What's new?

How is that possible?

This question is central to the idea of curiosity. And humans are inherently curious creatures. It begins from the time we learn to crawl and extends to grown ups wondering how the universe works.

Curiosity brings a range of benefits in life – it encourages us to explore and learn new things. Studies have also linked it to better relationships, reduced aggression, and enhanced well being. Curiosity stimulates progress towards one’s goals.

But what ​exactly is​ curiosity? We can be curious to learn new things and meet new people. We’re also curious how our signed card appears in the magician’s pocket. Is curiosity always pleasurable? Not always. We might be curious as to why a date rejected us or how to solve that frustrating Rubik’s cube…

Some answers to these questions come from the cutting edge science of researcher Todd Kashdan and his team. They synthesized years of research on curiosity, from studies​ of nearly 4,000 adults and found Five Dimensions of Curiosity:

Joyous Exploration​

This is about the sense of wonder. When we acquire fascinating new information that grows our knowledge, we feel joyous exploration. You get this, for example, when you discover the secret to a magic trick and learn how to perform it yourself.

Deprivation Sensitivity

Aka “Need to Know” curiosity​. This is the drive to solve problems along with its frustrations. Think of that pesky Rubik’s Cube and difficult Sudoku puzzles…

Stress Tolerance​

This dimension of curiosity entails the willingness to embrace the doubt or confusion associated with uncertain and mysterious things in life.

Social Curiosity​

Speaks for itself: this is curiosity about other people. What do they like, what do they dislike, what’s their favorite music or food, and so on. Social Curiosity is the desire to know more about people and what makes them tick.

Thrill Seeking​

This is the willingness to take different types of risks. Thrill Seeking includes the emotional “high” we get from these exciting, new experiences.  This emotional energy can be channelled into reckless future behaviours, meaningful life pursuits, or both.

Of all the dimensions, Joyous Exploration and Stress Tolerance had the strongest associations with measures of well being. This makes sense because well being is not merely about enjoying our endeavours all the time. But rather about having the psychological resilience to deal with uncertainty in life during the tough times.

As Abracademy is a company wishing to spread more magic in the world, we celebrate how uncertainty can create some wonderful, amazing, extraordinary and, of course, magical moments.

References

Kashdan, T. B., DeWall, C. N., Pond, R. S., Silvia, P. J., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., … & Keller, P. S. (2013). Curiosity protects against interpersonal aggression: Cross‐sectional, daily process, and behavioral evidence. Journal of Personality, 81(1), 87-102.

Kashdan, T. B., McKnight, P. E., Fincham, F. D., & Rose, P. (2011). When curiosity breeds intimacy: Taking advantage of intimacy opportunities and transforming boring conversations. Journal of Personality, 79(6), 1369-1402.

Kashdan, T. B., Stiksma, M. C., Disabato, D. D., McKnight, P. E., Bekier, J., Kaji, J., & Lazarus, R. (2018). The five-dimensional curiosity scale: Capturing the bandwidth of curiosity and identifying four unique subgroups of curious people. Journal of Research in Personality, 73, 130-149.

Sheldon, K. M., Jose, P. E., Kashdan, T. B., & Jarden, A. (2015). Personality, effective goal-striving, and enhanced well-being: Comparing 10 candidate personality strengths. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(4), 575-585.

Curious to find out more about Abracademy?

Get in touch

The Magic of Misfortunate Events

By | Abracademy Labs, Food for thought, What's new?

Resilience. Emotional agility. Psychological vitality. Regardless of the name we give it, this skill has a important impact on how we deal with life. 

Business losses, health problems, family issues. How we react to these adversities determines our future fulfillment. And it also determines whether we can restore magic and meaning to our lives.

It’s completely normal to experience negative emotions like sadness or anxiety when encountering the inevitable adversities of life. And it can be tempting to believe that one adversity will cause more problems. Or even worse: to believe it will become a downward negative spiral leading to debilitating negative conditions like PTSD. However, science shows that typical responses to adversity only involve a short period of negative emotions. This is followed by a return to our baseline happiness. There is also a seductive allure to focus on the disabling conditions of life, rather than the enabling ones. Subsequently, we are likely underestimating the prevalence of resilience we all have (Bonanna, 2004).

The good news is that regardless of where we are in life, our brains can be rewired to become more resilient. One way is by shifting focus to the meaning we find in our way, so we can use negative emotions productively.

Take stress, for example. After hearing a laundry list of reasons to “not stress”, many people then stress about being stressed. This creates a negative feedback loop. But researchers have shown that many disadvantages of stress disappear for people who view stress as a useful, energising tool (Achor, Crum, & Salovey, 2013; Keller et al., 2012).

Taking this a few steps further is the notion of Post Traumatic Growth. This is where a traumatic experience causes an individual to grow stronger than before the trauma (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2014). Think of Stephen Hawking. Paralyzed, no muscle function, no speech. Yet, he became one of the most respected thinkers: mathematician, physicist and cosmologist. And now his computerized speech is recognized as the voice of the cosmos!

Next time life throws you off course, ask yourself something… What would the value be if you could develop a habit of psychological resilience? Would you still view adversity and obstacles as problems? Or as gifts in disguise? What are the hidden opportunities of adversity? And how can you unlock this hidden, magical treasure of resilience for yourself…?

References

  • Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?. American psychologist, 59(1), 20.
  • Bonanno, G. A. (2005). Resilience in the face of potential trauma. Current directions in psychological science, 14(3), 135-138.
  • Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2014). The foundations of posttraumatic growth: An expanded framework. In Handbook of posttraumatic growth. Routledge.
  • Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(4), 716.
  • Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.

What is the power of learning magic?

By | Abracademy Labs, What's new?

The beauty of magic is that anyone can learn it. Not all magic takes years to master or requires an intricate sleight of hand. What’s even more extraordinary than learning magic is what you can learn about yourself in the process!

How does magic help us learn?

Magic is learning you can enjoy. When we’re infants we’re eager to learn everything and anything. But it seems that over the years learning can become something we fear, possibly because we’re scared to fail. Being able to learn magic and succeed at it can reignite that desire to learn new skills and open our minds to new possibilities. Magic teaches us to revel in practising, getting hooked on mastering a trick or improving your skills.

Seeing the power of magic in schools

Over the years I have, many times, seen first hand the wonders magic can do for students. Anyone can learn magic, but this doesn’t happen without some failures. Even Harry Potter had a bumpy road to mastering his spells! Pupils being able to deal with failure and accept criticism through learning magic helps them build the resilience needed to learn something new. The greatest learning comes from failure after all.

Importantly, I love seeing a child gaining belief in themselves, being able to step up in front of peers and perform magic. It’s this boost of self confidence and communication skills that can, and does, encourage essential engagement in the classroom. Pupils have said they were no longer too shy to read a poem to the class or give a presentation in morning assembly. Now that’s magic!

Unleashing magic in the workplace

Learning doesn’t stop after school. Working with companies has shown me the capability magic has to transform how teams function. It brings people together, they appreciate and learn from each other. Magic re-ignites creativity, imagination and curiosity to discover new things or new ways of being, traits often sadly lost in the working world.

We all need patience to get through life at school and at work. Like any new skill, learning magic requires patience. No-one becomes an overnight master, but with a little patience and a touch of magic, anything is possible!

Alex Pittas
Head Magician

Get in touch with Alex and the team

Get in touch

Magic at the Science Museum

By | Abracademy Labs, Hugo, What's new?

When I heard that the Science Museum invited Abracademy to take part in their Lates event, I immediately thought: let’s take magic home!

Magic and science are two sides of the same coin. They form an inseparable unity, one does not exist without the other. To paraphrase the great Argentinian magician, Rene Lavand, “Magic and science are two, but no more than one…”

 

A very English and most representative character of this unity was John Dee, magician to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, philosopher, scientist and magician. His prolific discoveries and visions helped Elizabeth to write the future history of England. We didn’t know it yet, but John Dee would be present for Abracademy’s performance that night at London’s Science Museum – one of the world’s scientific cathedrals!

Abracademy offered various activities (workshops, the Wonder Table, Abracademy Labs and a talk by yours truly). We presented to and taught what magic is about to a hugely diverse audience. We also talked about the implications that this complex form of art has, in furthering the study of the human brain. In the workshops, participants learned about the sense of Wonder while experiencing magic specially designed for the event.

The Wonder Table showed the most curious different types of illusions. Illusions that made them question what reality is and how we can be sure about the existence of what we see. The table also marked a line between optical illusions and cognitive illusions, which are a more complex type of illusion. They attack processes such as attention, memory and perception. Magic is the best example of cognitive illusion.

Magic and science are inextricably entangled. They have always inspired each other to create new ways of thinking and observing. They are complementary disciplines concerned with the same things, such as the human brain and how it works. Magicians are great observers of human behaviour, acquiring a deep and intuitive knowledge of the brain in the process. Through their own methods, trials and errors, magicians have understood, for millennia, phenomena of cognition that are only recently defined by neuroscientists and psychologists. Magicians and scientist are once again collaborating. But this time to disentangle the underlying processes behind attention, memory and perception.

It’s within this context that Abracademy created Abracademy Labs – an independent laboratory using magic to investigate the human brain. Currently the lab is developing different experiments, including understanding decision-making and forced choices. Abracademy Labs was of course present at the Science Museum Lates. Participants were invited to wear an eye tracking device and asked to look at a deck of cards while choosing one. The experiment always ended with the same enthusiastic question: how can you predict my card selection?!

In a very special room dedicated to a different art, mathematics (the universal language of nature), Abracademy created an evening of Wonder and brought magic home. We’re delighted that Dee was with us as mentioned, albeit in book form. Just a few steps from our Wonder Table was the first English edition of Euclid’s Elements, to which Dee wrote the preface. A magic (book) end to a magic evening!

Hugo Caffaratti
PhD Cognitive Neuroscience