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Illusion - How The Senses Deceive

Updated: Jan 29

Last week I had the pleasure to witness the world's biggest selling magic spectacular when blockbuster Broadway hit The Illusionists weaved their mesmerising spell over London's West End. A crack team of seven magical showmen, The Illusionists have been dubbed 'The Cirque du Soleil of Magic' and with their showbiz panache bear more than a passing resemblance to the stylish sleight-of-hand artists from the hit movie Now You See Me. In a previous blog, Hypnosis - Fact From Fiction, I highlighted the fact that magic and illusion have seldom been more in vogue than they are at present. For years magic was regarded as a bit naff and even embarrassing, evoking memories of lame childhood birthday parties where a middle-aged man in a top hat would produce fake flowers from up his sleeves and make a wand go bendy. But recent years have seen a spectacular renaissance in this area of the performing arts, thanks in no small measure to the likes of Derren Brown, David Blaine and Dynamo, who have done much to raise the bar and make magic cool again. One has only to look at this year's series of Britain's Got Talent, in which no fewer than five magicians/illusionists made it through to the grand final, to appreciate the massive upsurge in popularity which such acts are enjoying.

The Ilusionists, whose hit Broadway show is currently playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, are undoubtedly in the premier league of the magic and entertainment industry. For two hours, these seven world-class performers wowed and dazzled the West End audience with a series of mind-boggling feats which quite genuinely made the impossible appear possible. Magic and illusion have become huge passions of mine in recent years and I've even learned a few tricks of my own which I weave into my work from time to time for reasons I'll explain later. But despite the benefit of a front-row seat, and inside knowledge of how some magic tricks work, even I was at a complete loss to explain the jaw-dropping visual spectacles produced by these guys. Like the team of illusionists in Now You See Me, each performer has their own gimmick or field of expertise, as well as a snappy nickname to go with it. Topping the bill was 'The Futurist' Adam Trent - a slick and smiley Zac Efron lookalike who specialises in Technology Illusion. Then we had 'The Showman' James Moore - a British-born performer whose forte is Large Scale Illusion; 'The Daredevil' Jonathan Goodwin, acclaimed as one of the most creative, skilled and crazy stunt performers in the world; 'The Unforgettable' Enzo Weyne; 'The Manipulator' Yu Ho-Jin - an expert and former world champion in sleight-of-hand card magic and manipulation; 'The Mentalist' Chris Cox whose apparent mind-reading skills frankly beggared belief, and finally 'The Trickster' Paul Dabek, whose comedy magic provided some welcome light relief between the drama and tension of his colleagues' edge-of-the-seat theatrics.

The show has played in over 400 cities in 40 countries, becoming the biggest selling magic show in Broadway history and holding the highest box office records in a single week at numerous venues. The show has been filmed in both London and Los Angeles for TV broadcast and has also been featured as a special guest act twice on America's Got Talent. So why has magic - an art for so long maligned - suddenly become cool and popular again? Perhaps 'The Futurist' Adam Trent, whose skills in the show included apparent levitation and a spectacular array of visual illusions, has the answer. "What comes to mind when you think of a 'Magician'?" Trent asks. "Is it a penguin-suited, moustache-sporting guy who makes awkward dance movements and tells stale jokes while torturing women in wooden boxes? Was his greatest trick of all getting an audience to show up? Until recently this was the sobering reality of people's perception of magicians. I'm not suggesting that simply wearing jeans and a trendy shirt solves this problem. Needless to say, a good refresh was long overdue. I've always thought that magic should be entertaining first and tricky second. I don't want people to remember just the 'tricks' but also the laughs and the memories that were made."

Trent began performing magic at the age of nine, starting out with kids birthday parties and then graduating to corporate events when he was 13. A year later he started street performing - an experience he describes as "the most amazing but brutal training a performer could ever have". He says, "It taught me an audience's true attention span, because they just walked away if things moved slow". After gaining a degree in Finance and Entertainment Marketing, Trent underwent a crash course in LA's music and comedy scene. "I realised that the most important element in a show is the performer's connection to the audience," he says, "and without that even amazing skill can fall as flat as a bad boy band". When it comes to amazing skill and audience connection, few can match 'The Manipulator' Yu Ho-Jin, considered to be the most elegant and artistic manipulator alive by the world's leading magicians and often referred to as "the future of magic". Like Trent, Ho-Jin got into magic at the age of nine after witnessing a stage card manipulation act. He admits to having abused magic for his personal interests when he was younger by shoplifting at marts and switching exam sheets at school - behaviour which led to him having to move schools. But he cleaned up his act after realising the heartbreak he was causing his mother and it wasn't long before he was receiving awards at magic competitions with his mother's full support. In the summer of 2012, Ho-Jin suffered a serious and life-threatening car accident from which he survived against all odds. But despite his injuries, he refused to cancel his tours and flew to Venezuela and Las Vegas with a broken thighbone in order to honour his commitments. Inscrutable, mesmerising and supremely gifted in sleight-of-hand, Ho-Jin wins new admirers wherever he goes.

The Ilusionists acknowledge the debt they owe to the great Harry Houdini - regarded as the most famous illusionist and escapologist of all time. Born Eric Weiss, his idol was the great French magician Robert Houdin and he added an "i" to the end of his hero's name to form his now legendary stage name. Houdini first performed before audiences at the age of nine and began his professional career at 17, performing magic shows for civic groups, in music halls, at sideshows and at New York's Coney Island amusement park where he sometimes performed 20 shows a day. He married singer and dancer Beatrice Raymond and she joined the act as his partner. Arriving in a new town, Houdini would claim the ability to escape from any handcuffs provided by the local police. He offered a $100 reward to anyone who could provide handcuffs from which he could not escape, but he never had to pay out. Through his increasingly complex escapes and shrewd use of publicity, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, playing in cities across the country, before deciding to take his act to Europe. His big break came when he successfully broke free after being wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard. To increase publicity, he also jumped into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini remained underwater long after many observers were certain he couldn't survive, only to spring up, waving the chains over his head. By the time he returned to the United States in 1905, Houdini was an international celebrity. He escaped from the prison cell that held the assassin of President James Garfield, squirmed from a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and broke free from a packing crate that had been nailed shut and immersed underwater. One of Houdini's many claims to fame was that he could withstand any blow to his body above the waist, excluding his face. He had great abdominal strength and had trained himself to tighten his muscles so that he could take the blows. In October 1926, before a show in Canada, an amateur boxer asked permission to test Houdini's claim. Before Houdini had time to tighten his muscles, the boxer punched him three times in the stomach. In intense pain, he was admitted to hospital the following day where it was discovered that his appendix had burst. He died a few days later. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral in New York City.

Magic is not confined merely to the world of entertainment but, like hypnosis, has its uses in the field of therapy too. I mentioned earlier that I use magic, illusion and mentalism in my own work. The reason for this is that sleight-of-hand trickery is a very powerful and effective way of demonstrating to clients how our eyes and other senses deceive us. Making people aware of the often erroneous impressions they receive from the senses is absolutely pivotal to the work we do in the Phoenix therapy room because clients' problems are frequently caused by a distorted or biased perception of events. No two people see the world in exactly the same way. That’s because we all have our own subjective points of view. By becoming more aware of the bigger picture, we start to appreciate just how many of our problems are actually of our own making. Most people have no idea of just how narrow their field of perception is. It’s estimated that your brain receives about four billion nerve impulses every second. Of the four billion bits of information, you are only consciously aware of about 2000 bits, or about 0.00005% of all the potential data! To take in and process more would either drive you mad or be such a distraction that you couldn’t function, so we filter, delete, distort and generalise this information to the point where we can make sense of it. What you delete, distort and generalise depends on your beliefs, values and memories. For example, your perception of a certain event can be completely different based on the part of the world where you live, your gender, your religion or your life experiences. Have you ever had the experience of going to the cinema with someone, sitting through exactly the same movie together and discovering afterwards that one of you liked the film and the other hated it? How can it be that two people can watch the same thing and form entirely different opinions of it? It’s really quite simple. Your friend filtered the information differently.

It’s the same any time we vote in any kind of election. We all see, read and hear exactly the same information throughout an election campaign and yet many of us end up voting differently. Two relatively recent examples serve to highlight this point well – the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential election race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In both elections, voters in their respective countries were split in their views almost 50-50. How can it be that people view the same evidence and arguments and yet reach such wildly different conclusions from each other? Again, they filtered the information differently. We all put filters in place based upon such things as what happened in our family as we grew up, the teachings of any church we belong to, and the beliefs and values in the part of the world where we live. If your filters aren’t creating the results you desire then you are the only person who can change them. The first step is to become consciously aware of the filters you have and what kind of reality or results they are creating for you.

The potential for forming complete misconceptions based on inaccurate interpretation of sensory data was illustrated beautifully in an amusing scene from an episode of the classic British sitcom One Foot In The Grave (One Foot In The Algarve, 1993) in which the show’s protagonist, the curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew, believed himself to be incarcerated in a Portuguese jail when in fact he was simply stuck behind a stiff door at his holiday villa! A couple of Portuguese police officers had deposited Victor in the sparsely-furnished room, leading him to believe – wrongly – that he’d been locked up in a cell. This was an amusing and insightful example of how wrong conclusions and generalisations can lead us astray and get us into all sorts of bother. We laugh at scenes like this when we see them on a TV show, and yet it's amazing how often we're guilty of reaching equally false conclusions in our own everyday lives. How many of your decisions or generalisations about yourself, your partner, your boss, or the way things are at work, leave you ‘locked in’ when others are not stopped by it? One of our challenges is to discover those filters you've put in place and how they affect what you see, hear, feel, how you react to others and what you create in your life. Once you become aware of those filters that don’t serve you, you can choose consciously to modify or remove them.

The Greek philosopher Plato once compared humanity to a group of people who had spent their entire lives living inside the confines of a cave. Every day they would see shadows moving on the walls and because they were unable to see the objects outside the cave causing the shadows, they mistakenly believed that shadows were the only thing that was real. Our five senses are the tools that give us the human experience but they don't account for the full depth of reality. The human brain is a filter that, out of the limitless information around us, picks up selective energetic frequencies. Like a radio dial, your senses focus the energy around you and tune your perception to the frequency of the material world. Our senses conceal more than they reveal. Visible light (that which is perceivable by the human eye) consists of wavelengths between approximately 780 nanometers (7.80 x 10-7 m) and 390 nanometers (3.90 x 10-7 m). Within the vast electromagnetic spectrum, the portion we can see is miniscule. To put this into context, if we took the entire light spectrum and condensed it to the size of the Mississippi River, which flows 2,320 miles from the top of Minnesota into the Gulf of Mexico, the portion that would be visible to the human eye is a mere eight inches. Nearly all light cannot be seen because it exists on a frequency beyond our perception. The same is true for sound, smell, taste and touch. There are things all around us which we can't see, hear, smell, taste or touch because they exist outside the tiny frequency range of human perception. When we experience the world through the filter of the human mind, it is like looking at shadows on the wall of a cave.

I was blown away by the spellbinding skills of The Illusionists and you can still catch them at London's Shaftesbury Theatre until 1st September.

If you still believe that the senses don't lie then I strongly suggest you get yourself along to The Illusionists at the Shaftesbury Theatre where I guarantee you won't believe your eyes! Illusionists make the impossible seem possible by preying on the fact that our brains can only process so much sensory data at one time. They therefore use tactics such as misdirection and sleight-of-hand to manipulate our senses into seeing only what they want us to see. I use elements of magic and illusion in the therapy room because they can be powerful convincers in demonstrating how the senses deceive. For a example, a client with body image issues might believe, quite wrongly, that they're unattractive. In a situation like this, the person is likely to filter sensory data in a way that reinforces the negative self-belief, unconsciously ignoring and rejecting any complementary feedback regarding their appearance whilst soaking up any negative remarks unconditionally. If five people tell that person that they're attractive, they will most likely ignore those views and focus instead on the comments of the one person who insulted them. From a filter perspective, they have deleted and distorted the positive feedback and focused on the negative. What beliefs do you have about yourself, about others, about the world, that limit who you can be or what you can accomplish? Too often we take things at face value without subjecting them to critical analysis. Then the monkey mind takes over (see my previous blog Monkey - Taming The Chimp) and constructs a paranoid fantasy around that erroneous belief, piling speculation upon supposition and wrapping them all up in a package of unfounded fears and anxieties. But when I demonstrate to a client by way of illusion that things aren't necessarily what they appear to be, this can produce a quantum shift in their thinking and perception. Once we understand that the senses can lie, and that they provide an incomplete picture of reality, it becomes a massive game-changer in terms of how we view reality. Petty fears, anxieties and other negative emotions begin to subside, freeing us up to live a fuller, richer and more rewarding life. If you want to see for yourself how we use magic and illusion at Phoenix to alter perception and improve lives for the better then book a free 30-minute consultation now. Visit or drops us an email at

@AdamTrentMagic, @JamesMoreMagic, @JonathanGoodwinOfficial, @EnzoIllusion, @MagicianYu, @PaulDabek, @MagicCox

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