When Steve Macknik and I talk to audiences about our research on magic and neuroscience, one question that often comes up during Q&A is whether animals can experience magic. There is no easy answer: animals can certainly be deceived, and numerous research studies show that virtually every species, from bower birds to bees, is susceptible to illusions. But do animals feel wonderment, awe, or sense that they are experiencing the impossible?
Magic is more than deception. If somebody tricks you for no good reason, you may feel angry, sad or confused, whereas watching a high-quality professional magic show elicits wonder and mirth instead. Indeed, the connection between magic and laughter is altogether surprising. Confronted with the impossible, spectators of a magic show can’t help but laugh, as if the magician had just delivered the punch line to a good joke that they didn’t see coming. Shouldn’t they be anxious about the failure of that the physical laws of the universe that they know and love?
It can be different, and not altogether positive, for children. Although stage magic is often portrayed as children’s entertainment, tricks that delight adults can be less than amusing for kids—or they may fail completely. In 2009, Steve and I attended FISM (aka the Magic Olympics) in Beijing while doing research for our book Sleights of Mind. We travelled to China (and then across China after the competition) with a tour group made up of over 100 Spanish magicians and their guests. Our son Iago—who was two and a half years old at the time—came along for the trip. He had the luck (or misfortune, he sometimes seemed to opine) to be entertained by a large number of these performers. Although he did enjoy himself with some tricks, he just as often became aggravated that the laws of nature—which he had recently discovered through the toddler school of hard knocks—had collapsed around him. Having coins given to him—to be then magically stolen back—was particularly grievous, and grudges against the performer would result.
Most magicians agree that 5 years of age is the threshold at which standard magic will begin to appeal to kids. Magician Silly Billy, who we interviewed for Sleights of Mind, modifies standard magic routines to make them more kid-friendly, for instance, by using abundant slapstick humor and announcing the outcome of the trick well in advance (“I am going to make this coin disappear”: usually a no-no in magic performed for adults). Ironically, magic seems better suited to elicit child-like wonder in adults than in children.
So animals, even if deceived, may not experience magic in the same way as (adult) humans do. The videos of magician Jose Ahonen making dog treats disappear right in front of their sad puppy eyes provide anecdotal evidence in support of my skepticism. Anthropomorphic interpretation of the dogs’ reactions seems to indicate that they fall somewhere along the confused-to-angry continuum.
Maybe it’s different for great apes, however. In another YouTube video, a young chimp introduced to magic appears to exhibit a wider range of responses, from puzzlement to perhaps something close to delight. Not so different, perhaps, from the reactions that Silly Billy gets from an excited 3-year old audience, when properly entertained with just the right types of tricks.