Interview 38. – Lise Lesaffre


Lise is exploring magic, not that much in practice, but from a cognitive experimental perspective. Her PhD project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (supervisor Christine Mohr, co-supervisor Gustav Kuhn). In this project, the team investigates how experiencing an “impossible event” can affect people’s magical beliefs and associated cognitive biases (e.g. appreciation of chance). Lise is majorly responsible for developing an innovative design and methodology to investigate people’s beliefs, using specific psychic demonstrations, and cognitive measures. She is also interested in the definition, perception and interpretation of magic in various populations (i.e. children, adults, and particular patient populations).

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

I took the laundry out of the washing machine, and looked for the ball in which the liquid detergent was put. It was a laundry of sheets. When I finally found the ball, I felt a deep satisfaction and this moment was really funny as well. I genuinely enjoyed it. Usually I’m not paying attention to the amazement I can feel while doing this, but that particular time, I noticed it, and I immediately knew why I was so amazed by such a “normal” thing. Here is the explanation: when I have to look for the ball that is lost in the laundry, I first try to determine in which sheet it may be in, even before I start searching. It’s like trying to determine where the bean in the king’s cake is located, just by looking at the cake. When I’m right, this is pretty close to experiencing an Aha! Experiment.


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

Wonder is composed of different feelings: amazement, good surprise, non-understanding of what is happening, maybe a bit of frustration too. Also, wonder mostly happen when something unexpected and/or unusual happens.

Awe is more linked to surprise. It’s less complex than wonder. Awe can be part of wonder.

Curiosity refers to knowledge-oriented behaviour. It’s almost irrepressible. Curiosity means wanting to know more, don’t take everything for granted, do not get enough of only one answer to your question, being interested, going further.


What inspires you to be creative?

Usually people inspire me. Their personality, what they’ve done or what they say. When I meet people that I consider to be creative, that inspires me (like role models). Also when I read something, no matter if it’s an article, a book or a quote. Seeing a piece of art. Spending time in nature as well.

I may also be inspired by simple things. For example, weeks ago, I was sitting in a big sports room. You know this kind of sport rooms with marks on the floor, big roof, high windows, concrete made. The wind was quite strong outside, and a window was open. I looked at it because I could heard the wind coming from here, and I like the noise that trees’ leaves make when the weather is windy. So I looked there, and I saw some leaves going by the window, flying, twirling in this big concrete room and gracefully land on the ground. This moment inspired me. It’s like being fully aware of what’s happening around you, with a focus on one thing. It’s close to a mindfulness state.


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

Being alone. Being in a certain mind state. Being in a place where I know I can stay for hours without being disturbed or interrupted by anyone. In a tidy place, where everything is in its own space. Having some tea and dark chocolate may help as well. Also being outside, or doing sport before this ritual can also improve my creativity.


What do you love about magic?

I love the fact that even if I know quite a lot of magicians, and more and more about their technique, they are still able to amaze me. I like the creativity that magic raises, I like the way good magicians master their techniques, I like the way magicians constantly want to improve their techniques, or find multiple ways to perform the same magic trick. I consider magic as being an art, that adapts itself to its environment, that is constantly moving, improving and trying new things. You thought everything has already been done? You’re wrong! I also like the theatrical aspect of magic, as well as its’ mysterious aspect. I like the fact that I can experience the impossible even if I know it is impossible. I like this conflict happening, taking place in me after or when experiencing a magic trick. I love when magicians explain a way to do a trick, and do it again, like if they did the exact same  and they go to the opposite way of all your expectations. I like the weird way magicians act, because they pretend to behave naturally, while they are actually not (misdirection, manipulation, sleight of hands, false transfer…). I also like the way magicians interact with their audience, and the fact that the audience is involved in the magic. Finally, I would say I like magic because it’s fun! It’s a real entertainment.


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

A bad persona. A magician who doesn’t believe in his magic, who is not authentic. A monotone routine. Too classy tricks. The absence of surprise component, for example when you expect something, but in fact, it’s not what’s happening. Or in the contrary, you expect something impossible, and it’s too impossible it cannot happen. You know, when people say: “No, he’s not doing that, no impossible, no…WOOOOW HE DID!!!!!”. If this is missing, wonder may not be experienced.


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

It comes from our capacity to be intrigued, curious, as well as open to new experiences. To be empathetic too. In the case of magic, watching a magician performing instils a special link between the spectator and the magician. Also story telling is really important to create wonder.


In my experience as a magician I come across people who love puzzles and some who hate them. They find the state of unknowing uncomfortable or scary. How can we be more comfortable with mystery?  

I definitely don’t like the state of unknowing. But it depends on the field and is really context dependent as well. Concerning magic, I know that I’ll be fooled. It’s like an implicit contract you make with the magician before he/she even starts the demonstration. The frustration that occurs after seeing a magic trick is uncomfortable. But I don’t think we should get rid of this state because it’s just part of it. For me being frustrated by not knowing how the trick is done gives it more impact, more power, more wonder as well!


Can you tell me more about your research using magic and some of the findings?

I use magic to investigate belief formation. More particularly, I use a sort of mentalism routine that makes the audience think they are in front of a genuine psychic. I take before and after measurements about their beliefs and associated cognitive bias. What we found is when the performance is convincing, the audience get really emotional and most people believe what they saw was a genuine psychic demonstration.

The performance was not introduced as magic trick, nor the performer as a magician (even if he was). We introduced the performer as someone who pretended to be a psychic (we stayed skeptical toward this). We just invited participants to experiment a demonstration of his so-called skills, and said that we were interested in their reactions toward an anomalous event. The demonstration was performed with someone from the audience (who was actually a confederate) and the performer tried to contact a deceased relative of this person. All of it was prepared in advance. After the performance, we asked participants how they explained the demonstration in three different terms (from 1 to 7); psychic, conjuring and religious. Most of them (>60%) reported it has been performed by a genuine psychic.


As a magician should I be concerned that some people (even though we like to think we live in an enlightened and rational world) can be persuaded/manipulated into believing in the supernatural? Where are the ethical lines?

This is a very good question. I guess the best way to act ethically is just to be honest when someone comes to you after your demonstration and ask questions about your ‘powers’. No need to reveal the trick, just say that you have no powers, and that you managed to do that by learning techniques and with lot of training. Even that you used gimmicks. Insist on the fact that there is a rational explanation behind everything you did. However, if someone really wants to believe you are a genuine psychic, there is usually no way to change his/her mind.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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