“Neuromagic” was the name given to one of illusionist Victor Mids’ live shows that I attended back in November 2016, combining magic tricks with science. Mids is known for his popular television show “Mindf*ck”, watched by millions in the Netherlands, and book with the same title.

Victor Mids began studying medicine in Rotterdam in 2005. He had wanted to become a neurologist or a psychiatrist, but began noticing how his studies overlapped with his hobby of performing magic tricks (his interest in magic began around the age of 4), and instead turned toward the entertainment industry. Upon being questioned about whether he thought there are any medical applications for magic, Mids responded definitely not for “healing people in that sense”, but for the interaction, communication and positive influence that it forges. Alongside the importance of magic tricks bringing people together and creating a sense of wonder, what he says that he really wants to be known for, is how he uses linguistics to modify human behavior.

The evening began with Mids introducing the “Change blindness” phenomenon, where people do not notice changes in their visual surroundings — often due to shifts in attention or expecting something other than what is changed. We were shown two pictures with a slight difference, and it was surprising how little of the audience saw the change at first (less than 5%). Mids mentioned how what people remember can be manipulated with wording and putting pressure on individuals. For example, giving people a cognitive load (such as asking them to calculate math sums like Mids did to one volunteer during the show) reduces suspicion by making them focus on something else and also expect something afterwards that is related to the cognitive load. This cognitive load will increase conformity in answers given, as subjects are less focused on the actual topic at hand — for example, when asked to think of a color, the most common answer is red, followed by blue. Mids also tried some subliminal messaging in addition to cognitive loads; he said something along the lines of “I am really trying to hammer this into you […]” before asking the audience to think of a tool. He admitted that subliminal messaging has not been proven to work, and this reminded me of the famous subliminal advertising for popcorn in movie theatres by James Vicary in 1957. At a movie theatre in New Jersey, Vicary flashed simple messages and words onto the screen every few seconds, but only for 1/3000th’s of a second each time, which is far too short for a person’s conscious perceptibility. Messages included “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola”, and at this theatre there was an alleged increase in Coca-Cola sales by 18.1% and popcorn by 57.8%. In actual fact, the results from Vicary’s experiment were faked, and upon a replication of the experiment, there was no significant increase in sales. Another effective way to increase conformity is to place all the attention on the volunteer(s), such as repeating their name(s) regularly, so that there is an added pressure felt at all times.

When things don’t go quite to plan, or to increase the impressiveness of a trick, you can modify the experience with words and non-verbal cues. Confidence is key here, to ensure it all looks intentional. As demonstrated in the show, Mids informed us that 80% of the room raised their hands in admittance to falling for a trick of his, when only 40% of the audience had actually lifted their hands — obviously the performer on stage is taken as an authority on what the audience is doing due to them having a better view of the room. At one point he also asked how many had thought of the color red OR a hammer OR both, and then later in the show rephrased to “Do you remember how 80% of you thought of a red hammer?” Essentially Mids said that we could choose how people perceive us, and that faking one’s success is a perfectly legitimate and rather central aspect of show business.

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” – The Prestige, 2006

Mids says that a lot of his inspiration is science-based, and one such example was more of a biological experiment than a magic trick, involving visual afterimage. A highly saturated photo of the Eiffel tower was projected onto large screens, and after focusing on a specific point on the screens for some seconds, the same image changed to black and white. When this happened, it took a short while to realise the image was indeed black and white because it seemed as though the image was colored with hues opposite to those of the original image. I had already experienced this phenomenon in my art class a few years before, where my teacher made me stare at a spot of yellow paint on a sheet of white paper and then shift my gaze to a blank area on the paper, only to find a purple spot clouding my vision. This is due to the activated cones in the eyes adapting to the increase in stimulation and becoming fatigued, and so when the color is removed, the eyes leave an afterimage of the opposite color on the color wheel (such as purple to yellow). This is useful when gauging what is the best color to use for shading an object — when painting an orange table, the shadows should be blueish, so that they retreat into the painting and the orange is brought to the foreground.

The show ended with Victor Mids having an informal question and answer session, and something that interested me was his comments about children. Mids claims that children are less impressed and do not find his tricks as fascinating as adults, for they are already in a world of their own where they do not have strict rules in their mind about what can and cannot happen. He also gets frustrated with parents watching shows with their children, because they try to project their own confusion onto children…“Oh my did you see that, Claudia?! He just made the card disappear!” I couldn’t agree more with Mids on this point, and find it really patronising the way I often hear adults speaking to children — children are a lot smarter and more perceptive than adults often take them for, and I remember getting frustrated at the condescending way in which I was often spoken to in situations like these. Another interesting remark of Mids’ is that he considers hypnosis to be a verbal version of a sugar pill for experiencing the placebo effect. The mind has incredible power when it wants to believe in something.