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Harvard's long fascination with the paranormal

Hungarian-born American escape artist and psychic debunker Harry Houdini. Photo/Getty Images

Harvard, the hothouse of psychological teaching, has long been fascinated by the paranormal.

For more than 30 years, Watertown, Massachusetts, has been home to the Magic Art Studio. It’s a monument to magician and owner Ray Goulet, who enjoyed a long and celebrated career as a prestidigitator, a fancy word for magician that derives from French and Latin and means nimble-fingered.

Goulet died last October, and when my 14-year-old son and I dropped by, the studio was being looked after by family friend Ryan Lalley, who opens the doors only on Saturdays.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We came away with a number of magic tricks, cards and books and also enjoyed a free show as Lalley happily responded to the nipper’s “what’s that?” with demonstrations. The studio has a significant collection of magic paraphernalia that includes items used by perhaps the most famous performer of all time, Harry Houdini.

Houdini was a champion of prestidigitation and a critic of charlatanry. Although he enjoyed putting on a good show, he actively exposed the claims of people attributing their performances to the supernatural.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were awash with spiritualists claiming to be able to speak to the dead and conjure ghostly ectoplasm from thin air. Houdini joined members of the Boston Society for Psychical Research in debunking the supernatural claims of medium Mina Crandon in the 1920s. Incidentally, we get the term extrasensory perception, or ESP, from another famous Boston Society member, Joseph Banks Rhine.

As well as exposing others’ methods, Houdini wrote an exposition of some of his own tricks in 1906 called On Deception. This was only six years after early psychologist Norman Triplett published “The Psychology of Conjuring Deceptions” in the American Journal of Psychology.

William James. Photo/Getty Images

Boston is home to the Magic Art Studio as well as American psychology, which was taught in the first North American psychology teaching laboratory at Harvard University in 1875. The Harvard Psychology Department is named after William James, the first teacher of psychology in the US.

Although most commonly associated now with the science of psychology, James also had a connection with the psychical, as a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research. With a number of early psychologists and other scientists (including inventor Alexander Graham Bell and physicist Edward Pickering), James had been convinced of the value of scientific investigation of supernatural claims – like those of Leonora Piper, for whom James sat on multiple occasions.

Although he found Piper’s ability to discern information about her sitters to be compelling, James was not convinced that he came by her information courtesy of communication with spirits. He figured that Piper was just very good at guessing or, instead, telepathic.

James died in 1910, and 15 years later the Society for Psychical Research splintered, with one faction becoming the new Boston Society for Psychical Research with which Houdini would partner. In no small part this schism came about because of a James-like faction who believed that Crandon, subsequently exposed by Houdini and friends, was perhaps the real deal.

Regardless of their “truth”, spiritualism, magic and other paranormal experiences are fundamentally psychological. For an entertaining read about the psychology behind magic, I’d recommend Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind. Although retaining the magic, Brown writes about some of the psychological foundations of our experience of performative magic, including cognitive biases, misdirection and change blindness.

As it happens, these are the very things that Triplett alluded to more than a century earlier.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.