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.
In Schulz's research on exploration, discovery, and causal learning in early childhood, she has shown that when children encounter ambiguities that confound them or anomalies that surprise them (two sides of the same coin), they want to explore. Most of the time, when children have a choice between a toy they've already played with and a new toy, they pick the new one. But if the toy they've already played with doesn't work the way they expect it to, they "break their novelty preference," as Schulz says, and keep playing with it—evidence that they're intrigued and exploring. With her graduate students, Schulz did an experiment with 5-year-olds in which she gave them some blocks that balanced in the middle, the way kids of that age would expect them to, and some blocks that balanced asymmetrically. When a block balanced oddly, children kept playing with them instead of switching to a new toy.
Such anomalies, or violations of expectation, or bending of the rules of the physical world, are what magic is all about. So Schulz's work helps me understand why Simon and the other kids were so eager to move from passively watching the tricks to trying to figure them out, once Magic Dan issued the invitation. They were hooked on exploration. They also didn't get the magician's effort to make his mistake part of the show—Schulz calls this a "coy high-level abstract inference" that a 6-year-old isn't likely to pick up on. She pointed out that magicians have to pitch their acts with some precision to different age groups. Since young children don't know much about a deck of cards (that there are 52 in all, with four suits in descending order), card tricks tend to fall flat with them. Rabbits popping out of scrambled egg pans, however, they get.
So is there an age at which children conform to adult expectations and simply want to sit back and feel wonder and surprise? Maybe not. The appeal of illusion and puncturing illusion "are intimately related," Schulz says. "We have both experiences very strongly at magic shows: We are surprised and we want to figure it out. The more surprising, the more we want to know how it works. That's true at any age. You can find it in babies and toddlers, too."
After Magic Dan rescued his rabbit, he sat down, and a second magician, 17-year-old Zach Ivins, took the stage. He had a short set of tricks that he whipped off with great skill. He asked the kids to make lots of predictions. ("Would the red ball be at the top, or the green one?") But he didn't open the door to debunking in the moment. Zach ended with a series of tricks with Chinese links. When the show ended, Simon admitted that he didn't know how those tricks worked—a major concession.
But on the way out the door, he was deep in conversation with a dad friend of ours, back to figuring out the bunny trick. Where had the rabbit gone while the eggs were frying? Simon and our friend sat down at one of the library tables and sketched out their theory—a three-part pan that included a lid with a false bottom. "That's how he did it!" Simon shouted out and then marched over to show his sketch to Magic Dan. Who didn't seem too pleased to see it. Children—aren't they a wonder?