Monday Afternoon’s Student Presentations: Richard Wiseman

Demonstrating magic tricks – the way into magic! Sleight of hand with coins, can reveal lots about keeping and holding onto your attention. The normal rules of social behaviour mean that we follow the magicians eyes – you sometimes really have to force yourself to try it a new way. The surreality of the act when you mention the magic trcik and try and do it makes the mind work really hard. Optical illusions also make your attention get diverted by odd perspectives and unexpected results.

Richard is an experimental psychologist. Ten years ago had a call from Hampton Court Palace- they had a ghost, and they wanted to investigate it. People were claiming they were having unusual experiences in some parts of the building. The Haunted Gallery- a place where one of Henry VIIIs wives was marched through. There were a number of areas down the corridor, which were ‘hot spots’, Did these stack up? Volunteers had to put markers where they felt a presence etc. One theory was some thermal air near hidden draughts. Another was of low frequency sound- infrasound.

They carried out an infrasound experiment with concerts at South Bank. 4 performances, and in 2 they piped in infrasound. They set all their variables. The whole trial was done ‘blind’, people were not aware of the effect. People then had to describe their feelings – not using scales, but description. The audience were fascinated by it and really enjoyed taking place.

The work in Edinburgh vaults- which were supposedly haunted. A simple VR version of the vaults also produced that sense of menace- was it light levels? What elicits unease or presence in VR world too, as they matched the real world.

With Simon Singh, the Theatre of Science shows at the Soho Theatre produced some key ideas. When contorting, she is aware male attention, through the act of contortion. She guides the attention. The Tesla coil, producing indoor lightning, was also part of the performance. If you were between the coils, you would die (Houdini once said saying someone could die during a performance was a sure way to fill a theatre). Once health and safety was taken care of, and insurance, the audience could vote Simon Singh or Richard to go inside. The edginess of the performers was transmitted to the audience each time. The sense of uncertainty was palpable, and the audience really loved it.

Richard has become interested in virals- has now 2.5m hits on YouTube. The Amazing Colour Change card trick- where no-one notices the fact that the resolution of the trick has a whole new background, clothes etc. There was a second video made, of the ‘making’ of the first trick. There are lots of comments on the channel now. There was a team at Uni of Edinburgh. There were no differences in where we were looking- the ability to ‘see’ the changes being made, so it’s much more psychological. The flow that is created in where the performer draws the attention is not clunky, but smooth, and it can take perfecting.

We just cannot take in the whole world- we take in a small area, and we assume and expect the rest of the world not to change. Attention work is not developed – and is learning from performance! When you come to apply it, this is where it can stand up or fall down.


The brain can link up points on an outline where there is no body there, and fill in gaps. Even when there is a small number- a respected study stated you need 13 light points to do that at minimum on someone dressed in black in a dark room. Recognition of feelings and emotions drops from 88% in full light to 63% with 13 light points. This is an experiment using the web- 6000 people in a database, half of whom would respond within 24 hours.

When brain lesions are present- the ambiguity about humour means you cannot tell what the punchline is from three choices of (a) meaningful but not funny (b) surreal and (c) humorous.

Skip to toolbar