Todd Landman Academic Magician
December 12, 2021Todd Landman

Object Permanence

Why does magic 'work'? What is it about perception and psychology that makes us experience magic of the kind conjurors have been performing for millennia?

The Conjuror, Hieronymus Bosch, 1475-1480

One answer may lie in the work of psychologist Jean Piaget who developed the idea of 'object permanence.' Many of us may remember playing 'peek a boo' either with our parents (highly unlikely), playing it with our own infants, or those in our wider familial or friendship networks.

'Peek a boo' works among infants, according to Piaget, precisely because up until a certain age, children do not yet have the ability to perceive and understand that objects retain their permanence even if they are obscured from view. Once an infant develops the cognitive capacity for object permanence, the game of 'peek a boo' no longer works, since children know that the object that has been obscured has not vanished, but is still present, just not in view.

The development of object permanence does, however, allow magic to work. When a magician places an object under a cup, or in a pocket, our minds tell is that the object is still there even though we cannot see it. We are then surprised when it is not, or when it appears elsewhere.

There are many debates concerning the precise age children gain this perceptual ability, but magicians have traded on some sense of object permanence to produce what appear to be impossible demonstrations using a wide range of objects, such as cups, balls, coins, and cards.

Modern Magic by Professor Hoffmann, 1876

One such set of objects appears in Professor Hoffmann's Modern Magic and is known as the 'ball box'. The item is a beautifully turned wooden vase with a small ball that fits under its lid (see Figure 131 below). The ball is clearly seen in the vase when its lid is lifted, but magically moves from the vase to the pocket and back again.

Figure 131: The Ball Box, Modern Magic

The ball box has been produced for many years now, and my own collection in The Magiculum contains many examples, including the one shown here. The ball is shown, removed and placed in the pocket, only to return to the vase in inexplicable fashion. It is even possible for the ball to change colours, while at the completion of the demonstration, the vase and ball can be handed out for inspection.

Piaget and the Ball Box, The Magiculum 2021

This simple understanding of objects and their permanence allows for an infinite combination of moves, routines, and items that produce our magical experiences. Signed cards appear behind windscreens of cars (windshields for my American friends), in sealed envelopes, wallets, and under whiskey glasses in full view on the magician's table. Coins move under cards, from hand to hand, or from small pill boxes one at a time. Silks vanish and reappear, or are transformed into an egg.

Elephant Vanish, Harry Houdini, 1918

Even elephants have vanished from a large box on stage, as performed by world famous magician, Harry Houdini, as documented and discussed in Jim Steinmeyer's Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible. Drawing his inspiration from Houdini, modern magician David Copperfield has made a jet airplane and the Statue of Liberty vanish!

Whether elephants or balls, planes or statues, the art of magic plays with our perception, rooted in childhood cognitive development, and continues to enthral audiences around the world. To contemplate this idea further, I leave you with a short video from The Magiculum, which I call Magic at the Table.


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