Generation after generation, at playgrounds, sleepovers and summer camps, school-age children have played perceptual tricks for one another. You may remember some of these games from your own childhood, such as the “Rubber Pencil,” or “The Chills.” Chances are, your parents and grandparents played them too when they were kids.
K. Brandon Barker, Lecturer in Folklore at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Claiborne Rice, Associate Professor in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, have recently published the most extensive compilation to date of such “Folk Illusions” (Indiana University Press, 2019).
I reached out to Barker and Rice to ask them about their new book, the research that led to it, and their future plans. Their answers are lightly edited for clarity and conciseness:
ILLUSION CHASERS: What are folk illusions?
BARKER AND RICE: All people experience perceptual illusions. Folk illusions constitute all of the illusions that are a part of people’s folklore. Folklorists define folklore as people’s oral, customary, and material traditions that get passed around by way of word of mouth, most frequently during face-to-face interactions.
It turns out that people, especially kids, maintain many traditions that play with illusory processes. Some examples are wobbling your pencil so that it looks like it turns into rubber, or listening for the sound of the ocean in a conch shell, or pressing your arms against the inside of a doorframe in order to make your arms feel like they are floating.
ILLUSION CHASERS: How did you decide to study folk illusions, and how long have you been doing this kind of research?
BARKER AND RICE: Brandon was a folklore graduate student in Clai’s cognitive poetics seminar. We were studying metaphor and blending theory. Brandon suggested 'the Chills' as an example of blending. The Chills is a folk illusion during which one child, which we call the director, stands behind another child, which we call the patient, and performs particular kinesthetic actions (like running her fingers down her playmates back or pretending to smash an egg on her head) while reciting traditional correlative lyrics: “Crack an egg on you head, let the yolk run down, stab a knife in your Back, let the blood run down.” The whole thing can be very persuasive for the patient, who often gets the chills while perceiving egg and blood running down her neck and back. While discussing that, we came up with a few other illusions that we had performed or seen as kids, such as Rubber Pencil or Ocean in a Shell that we mentioned before. Thinking that surely some of these forms had been researched already, we went looking and found nary a peep in the folkloristics or linguistics literature. When we broadened our scope, we found that only a few of the play forms we were interested in had been investigated. For example, physiologists had been studying the kinesthetic aftereffects featured in Floating Arms for more than a century, and folklorists had been working on forms that play with weight illusions, such as Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, since the middle of the twentieth century. A few more had been studied by physiologists and cataloged by folklorists in collections of finger games or hand games, like the Japanese Illusion, which we call Twisted Hands. As we were perusing the relevant literature, we were also asking our families if they knew any other examples. Clai’s youngest son, Will, was about 11 years old at the time, and he started bringing home illusion games as he learned them at school. Brandon's wife, Ellen, was teaching middle school, and she had witnessed different forms as well.
We set up our first systematic fieldwork of a group of four middle school-age girls in 2010. After just one observation, we had a folklorist's treasure trove of variation. Once prompted, the girls performed so many different folk illusions. They taught us several new forms and different variations of forms that we were already aware of. By then, we realized that we were not dealing with a just a few fun kid pastimes, but a genuine genre of folklore that nearly everyone could immediately identify and give examples of.
ILLUSION CHASERS: How would you describe your book? What kind of readers is it aimed to?
BARKER AND RICE: Our book is an introduction to an unstudied genre of folklore, and highly interdisciplinary. We merge two different kinds of empirical data. Folklorists speak of empirical data as examples gathered during messy, out-in-the-world fieldwork. Scientists speak of empirical data as gathered from controlled experiments in laboratories. We could not have learned the different illusions that kids play without doing folkloristic fieldwork with kids in daycares, middle schools, and summer camps, but we also needed experimental investigations to understand the perceptual dynamics involved. Our book has something to offer to either people interested in or working with either kind of empirical data.
ILLUSION CHASERS: How many types of folk illusions have you encountered in your work?
BARKER AND RICE: We can categorize folk illusions as folklore and as illusions. As examples of folklore, folk illusions may be categorized by the age of the typical participants. Very young kids, 2 to five years old, play simple illusions that require little verbal characterization, such as Got Your Nose or the old Detachable Thumb Trick. As kids get older, beginning around 8 years old, they play with forms that have more complex verbal or lyrical components, like The Chills. By the time they are teenagers, they prefer forms like Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, that incorporate socially complex narratives and require a greater degree of group cooperation in ritualized contexts. When adults perform folk illusions, they tend to do so as pranks or for fun at parties. We gathered a great example from a woodworker in Pennsylvania named Samuel Martin. He had fashioned what looked like a sledgehammer from some very light deadwood. He would ask unsuspecting visitors to bring him his hammer, whereupon they would suffer the surprise of jerking the trick hammer high into the air.
In the context of the science of perception, some of the folk illusions fall easily into basic modalities: Haptic, Visual, Auditory, Taste. More difficult are the illusions of the body, which are either cross-modal or focus a performer’s attention on specific elements of somatic experience. We divide these more challenging examples into five categories: Motor Illusions, Body Schema Illusions, Flying/Falling Illusions, Strength and Balance Illusions, and Painful Illusions.
Our book catalogs more than one-hundred and twenty folk illusions. We have made many folk illusion videos freely and permanently available, through the Indiana University Media Library.
ILLUSION CHASERS: Are there cultural or geographic variations in folk illusions?
BARKER AND RICE: This is the focus of the next part of the project. Our fieldwork to date was done in America, so our examples are largely American. That being said, we have gathered some remembrances from people who grew up in different places around the globe, so we are confident that folk illusions are cross-cultural.
Even in our American context, though, we have recognized cultural differentiation. Folk Illusions in which a participant is levitated off the ground are a good example. Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board is more seance-like, with chanting and candles in a closed room. The levitation is attributed to supernatural or spiritual forces. A form we call Combine Our Strengths, however, characterizes the levitation using scientific terms, as when performers “cut the center of gravity” or align their “magnetisms.” Because Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board is commonly associated with the occult, we have found that children in some parts of the country, like heavily Roman Catholic southwest Louisiana, are unwilling to perform it around adults, whereas they will gladly perform Combine Our Strengths for their science teacher. In the Midwest, youths have not been hesitant to perform either variant.
ILLUSION CHASERS: What are the earliest recorded folk illusions?
BARKER AND RICE: Folk illusions must be as old as humankind because illusions are themselves the product of a human’s normally operating perceptual system. One central argument in our book is that everyday people, the folk, are not naive to the illusory tendencies of perception. Even as children, humans recognize their experience of illusions in patterned ways that invite opportunities for fun and play.
Written evidence of folk illusions shows up in ancient philosophy. Aristotle, for example, writes about the moon illusion and his famous crossed-finger illusion. We interpret these early references as evidence of an ancient, living folk tradition more than as the insight of a single brilliant philosopher. We hope that our book will introduce folk illusions to scholars all over the world who might recognize similar examples in other ancient texts.
ILLUSION CHASERS: Why are folk illusions more commonly enjoyed by children than by adults?
BARKER AND RICE: There is no clear and easy answer to this question. Children’s and youth’s bodies are developing in a way that adults bodies are not. That’s obviously true physically, but also when we think about what it is an adult knows about her body, compared to a child. It may be the case that the illusory tendencies of perception are simply fresher and more interesting to children.
That being said, folk illusions are also a part of children’s worlds of play. We agree with children’s folklorists like Elizabeth Tucker and John McDowell who argue that adultocentic thinking about children’s play as some kind of precursor to or as practice for becoming an adult is largely incorrect. Children play for their own aesthetic ends. In other genres of folklore, we know that children and youths enjoy pushing the boundaries of perceived (and believed) reality. Consider ghost stories told around campfires, or groups of teenagers on legend trips to the local haunted house. We think folk illusions provide children and youths opportunities to push their very own bodies up against the edges of reality.
ILLUSION CHASERS: Do you have a favorite folk illusion?
BARKER AND RICE: This is the hardest question! One illusion that is less well known and that we learned late in our research is a visual illusion that we call Zane’s Illusion, after the nine-year-old who showed us the form in 2017. Here’s our description from the book:
Go like this. Hold your right hand out in front of you so that your arm extends perpendicularly from the center of your chest. Your right palm should be facing up so that you can see the underside of your right forearm. Now, make a fist with your right hand. The next step is simple. Pull your arm up in front of your face so that the distal portion of your forearm touches your nose and the knuckles of your fist point toward the sky. From this position (you can do this while you read), point the index finger on your left hand in the standard pointing position. Now, hold that pointed finger so that it is parallel to the ground and pointing to your right. Here comes the fun part. While staring straight ahead, slowly pass your pointed finger in front of your right forearm that is in front of your face.
ILLUSION CHASERS: How can readers assist you with your ongoing investigations?
BARKER AND RICE: We welcome anyone who enjoys these illusions to send us descriptions of their favorite ones. Our email address is email@example.com.