I Know How You Did That!
The science behind kids and magic tricks.
During Magic Dan's second trick in a show at our town library last weekend, the magician didn't pull off the sleight of hand he seemed to have planned. He was supposed to make a red scarf disappear into an egg, cupped in his hand. But when he displayed the egg to the crowd, he presented the side that showed the last bit of the scarf, poking out. "I made a mistake," he said, showing the egg with scarf to the kids sitting on the floor and in small chairs, next to their parents in larger ones. "Now let me teach you something about misdirection."
What followed was the trick that was supposed to make the mistake into part of the show. Magic Dan started to do the same sleight of hand again, narrating how he'd gone to stuff the scarf into the egg. But this time, the scarf truly did seem to disappear. The egg the magician showed us looked whole. And then he cracked it, and the yolk and the white ran out into a pan. (And then he set the pan on fire and appeared to plop a white bunny down on the flames. Only for a few seconds, but it was too long for me.)
The lesson of the failed trick turned into cooked egg and uncooked bunny rabbit: Magic really is magic. But that's not what my 6-year-old son, Simon, concluded. When Magic Dan cracked the egg, he started to wave his hand in the air. "I know how you did that!" he called out, one of a bunch of murmuring and shouting kids in the audience.
By this time, though, the moment for exegesis had passed. Magic Dan was lighting his egg on fire, asking the kids whether they wanted it scrambled and then plopping in the bunny and somehow pulling it back out unscathed. We were supposed to be following him back down the path of wonder. So I shushed Simon. "You're not supposed to be saying how he does it," I hissed. But Simon kept waving his hand, threatening to call out, and then whispering his theories to the kid next to him.
Simon has taken to doing his own small magic tricks all the time—interlacing his fingers and hiding one, so that when you count there are only nine. (Uh oh, what happened to your missing finger?) But he doesn't actually cherish the concept of illusion. Watching him and the other kids watch the magician, it seemed that as soon as they caught a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, they couldn't wait to rip down the rod. Which led me to a set of questions: What do children want from magic or the disguise of a Halloween mask? It's clear that adults want them to be surprised and delighted. But are children actually interested in illusions only so they can try to unravel what's behind them?
It turns out that magic tricks of a sort are a staple of infant and child research. If you want to know if babies know whether objects appear to change shape, for example, you track how long they look when they see a red ball appear to become a blue ball. Younger babies don't care if one thing turns into another; older babies do, and will stare. This is all about "expectations and violations," as Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, explained to me. Children have to know that a scarf shouldn't be poking out of an egg to have that expectation violated—in other words, to feel surprised. "We sometimes think of children as naturally curious. But it actually requires a fair amount of expertise to know when to have an expectation and when to know it's been violated," Schulz says.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. She is also the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.