Steven E. Bagienski – magic & wellbeing (#17)


Magic & Wellbeing researcher, close up magician, Realistic Optimist

Twitter: @link8822

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I was recently in Boston and saw a busker do a triple back flip on a Pogo stick.  He built it up a lot and also passed his body through a stringless tennis racket while balancing on a large pogo stick.  The energy of the crowd he built up to the backflip, combined with the music, really made me feel content to see it and I had a strong sense of respect for him.  I think a lot of it had to do with being on vacation where I was more generous to tip him and simply being amazed at how he found his niche and is making a living off of something that is uniquely his.  And the level of commitment that takes is something I really respect, admire and felt amazed by.


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Let’s start with curiosity.  I often think of curiosity as interchangeable with the emotion of ‘interest’ because that’s the name positive psychology researchers use for the emotion.  I would define it as “The desire and willingness to acquire new information and/or new experiences“.  This is based off Todd Kashdan’s new psychometric scale that condensed the prior psychological literature on curiosity into a survey, which found 5 distinct dimensions of curiosity: Joyous Exploration, Deprivation Sensitivity, Stress Tolerance, Social curiosity, and thrill seeking.  I’m not sure if I personally would call thrill seeking as curiosity, but sounds like a handful of psychologists have been labelling it as curiosity.

As for Awe, I would borrow Dacher & Keltner’s framework, which suggests that awe is composed of two parts: “perceived vastness, and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures.”  I believe this can occur in both active or passive manners.  A passive manner would be simply accepting this inability to reconcile the conflict between an experience and one’s current mental structures.

The active part of Awe is what I believe to be wonder (big thanks to you, Matt, for this distinction).  This active part is participatory in the sense that you actively try to reconcile (and explore) the cognitive conflict present in Awe.  This drive to actively reconcile the conflict comes from a desire to acquire new information that closes the gap.  Therefore, curiosity is also present in wonder.  However,  I do not believe that the conflict ever gets resolved because if it was, then the Awe and Wonder would disappear.  It’s kinda like how when you use a fake mouse at the end of a string to play with a cat.  The cat tries to grab it, and often seems so close, but nevertheless is continually just barely out of reach.   The mouse is the piece of information that would explain everything.  And the moment it’s captured, the Awe and Wonder would vanish.


What inspires you to be creative?

I don’t think anything “inspires” me to be creative.  Being creative is enjoyable in its own right.  It just feels very fun & engaging to come up with new ideas, connections, and solutions…perhaps this is the same feeling as curiosity. I don’t really know.  At least part of this enjoyment probably stems from a quote that I read as a kid from a childhood idol, Shigeru Miyamoto who created many Nintendo games and characters.  He said “A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.”   And that type of thinking has really stuck with me over the years.  It’s not just the number of new ideas you generate that matter, but also the number of relevant/important problems that the idea will solve.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

I do have a fair amount of rituals that I believe impacts my creativity.  One is to play Brain Age: Concentration training. It’s based off a Japanese neuroscientist’s research, showing that the games increase blood flow to certain parts of your brain (the science, however, is very controversial).  Another is mindfulness meditation, and sometimes loving kindness meditation. I also try to reflect on my weekly and daily progress (emphasis on ‘try’).  But one of the most important ones, I believe is physical exercise.  And this is coming from someone who used to dislike sports as a kid, barely participated in gym class as a kid, and ran a 13 minute mile.  But after I began learning about all of its benefits, did an exercise & meditation study, and gradually began habitizing it….Then I realised how much it affected the way a felt and therefore my ability to think more clearly.


What do you love about magic?

  1. In a way, magic teaches us that the “impossible” is possible.  In other words, things that people once perceived to be impossible can actually be achieved.
  2. Magic reminds us that uncertainty is not always a negative thing: Not knowing can also be an enjoyable, exciting experience.
  3. Magic can humble us by reminding us of how little we actually know about the world.
  4. Performing magic acts as a catalyst to emotionally connect with others.  And, in my view, these meaningful social connections with others are the most meaningful part of life.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

  1. Believing that they know how the trick is done.
  2. Too much distraction (or too little attention) that the person fails to notice the key points in a magic trick that ought to make it appear ‘impossible’.
  3. Lack of interest up front.  This could stem from a variety of courses such as the idea they don’t want to look like a fool, so decide they ignore it or perhaps they were cajoled into seeing the magic show when they would rather be somewhere else.
  4. Watching the magic show as if it were a movie.  This would still be enjoyable to the person, but if they are too complacent and don’t actively try to resolve the impossible moments, I do not think it would elicit a sense of wonder.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

It probably evolved as a way for humans to successfully learn about and interact with this world, to ensure that we survive.  As for cultivating it, we can learn a new subject and keep asking questions.  For me, the more that I learn about something, the more nuances & mysteries arise, which in turn makes me wonder how much we still don’t know.  I think another way to cultivate it is by surrounding yourself by qualified individuals who disagree with your viewpoint.  Their feedback is invaluable to making us wonder whether the things we “know” are actually correct or need some refining.


You’ve done extensive research into how magic can be used to increase Wellbeing. Can you tell me more about some of the projects you’ve investigated and the main findings?

Sure, I wrote a review paper with Dr. Gustav Kuhn at Goldsmiths University, UK to investigate the question “How can magic be used to enhance well-being?”.  I didn’t think much academic literature would be out there so the strategy was to look at it from a few perspectives: 1) The limited academic literature, 2) What have experienced magicians done in this realm, and 3) Could some existing psychological theories help explain what we find? We also needed a way to organize it, so separated it into progressive stages:

  1. Watching magic. The main findings were that curiosity or interest seemed to be at the core of watching.  This has been applied successfully in distraction therapies and there might be something related to creativity (we only have evidence for the aspect related to more ideas generated but even this was magical content and not specific tricks.
  2. Discovering Secrets. Actively discovering tricks seems to be related to pride or happiness. We don’t know how this differs from simply being told the secret. But then there’s the disappointment that comes from losing the sense of wonder or feeling like a fool for not figuring it out (“Ah!! How could I have been so stupid and missed THAT!”)
  3. Learning to perform magic. Performing is where we start seeing motor skills and social skills, but definitely need more replication in the social side of things.
  4. Teaching with magic. A little evidence for a deeper appreciation or meaning.

Then there’s also what happens to the performer where he/she creates an “application” for the performance.  This is where it gets artsy and can be used for a breadth of purposes. It might be used for comedy. It might be to scare people. It might be to teach a class. It might be to read convince people you can read minds (mentalism). It might to to make new friends or pick up girls. The list goes on.  But the important thing here, in my opinion, is that it adds a level of MEANING to the performance.  And this is a key contributor to well-being in Seligman’s PERMA wellbeing theory from positive psychology.


I read recently in Todd Kashdan’s book “Curious?” that he believes curiosity is one of the key characteristics of a ‘happy’ life, would you agree?

That’s a great question. I think it could be because curiosity is enjoyable. It can also help you be more successful by wanting to learn more.  But then again feeling grateful is also part of a ‘happy’ life.  I honestly don’t like the word “happy” much because I think it’s overused for too many positive emotions.  But one thing I will say is that personally, I’ve found low expectations, gratitude, and optimism to be keys for a happy life with good physical health as the foundation.  Some say low expectations and optimism is contradictory but I disagree. It just means that the optimism is general and not specific, thus allowing you to see more benefits of a particular situation.


As I’m typing this you’re packing suitcases to embark on a Ph.D at Goldsmiths University. What are you most excited about and what are you planning to research?

Oh man! So many things. I’m finally getting the stats training that I was craving when I was too busy working chem jobs. I’m immersed in academia again, which I love so much more than working in corporate world.  I can’t think of a more personally befitting and meaningful thing to do than work on exploring magic and wellbeing.  I think it’s clear that there’s so many directions this research could go, but I will be focusing on the social and emotional experiences of watching and learning to perform magic.  This is because I really do believe that our relationships with others are what matter most in life.  It’s how we become part of something bigger than ourselves.  I would love more scientists to explore the many nuances, but for me I think this small PhD project is a good place to start. We’re working with Abracademy to help teach the magic and I’m still thinking of how to best devise the watching magic experiments. I want to look at close up magic and feel that it needs to be live because the responsive nature is what’s key and it’s really difficult to do that in a video.  Furthermore, watching a screen might still give the “feeling” of it being fake because we are often conditioned to see “magical” things on screens. So I think a skilled, live magician would really be needed.

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