WhatsApp Q&A: Powers of the Mind and what you can do with them

On December 14, 2014, I had the unique opportunity to participate in the first WhatsApp Chat organised by More Than HR Global (MTHRG) titled Powers of the Mind and what you can do with them. This was attended by 50+ members from their “Friends of MTHRG” (FOM) WhatsApp group.

Rajesh Kamath, a co-founder of the MTHRG – and a good friend of mine – moderated this WhatsApp chat rather well, that was tweeted about on Twitter using the using Hashtag #MTHRMindChat. 

Here is the transcript of the interesting Q&A session with only minor corrections made to address typos and spellos and other inadvertent errors caused due to the phone-based typing.

Read more WhatsApp Q&A: Powers of the Mind and what you can do with them

Filling our Planet with Magic

As a student of communication, one of the first things you learn is the importance of context: where and when something happened defines the meaning of the event itself. Soon enough, one realises that context is everything. What was said is not as important as the context it was said or heard in.

To explain, the line “I was waiting for you!” can take different meanings whether it was said by a friend, by your boss in office, or by a stranger in a dark alley. So can “you are so dead”. The words take on their meaning not only based on who said it, but where and how. This is what we in Magic understand as the “setting” of an effect, act, or show.

Magic and its performance is perceived differently based on the context; everything from the presentation, costume, patter, and the effect itself plays a role in defining this. Yet, the factor that makes the biggest impact remains the context of the presentation: Who was the performer and how was he able to achieve what he did? Where and in what situation was the act performed? Was it an unplanned, chance activity or did a lot of pre-planning and connivance go into achieving the effect? Was this a once-in-a-lifetime experience?

This context of the performance shapes the perception of the performer per se, placing him/her on a continuum of being seen as a cheat, a trickster, a magician, a psychic entertainer, a shaman/witch-doctor, a psychic, or a godman. Further, this perception of the performer defines the impact of the effect and makes all that is necessary to make it a con-game, a trick, a magic, or a miracle.

From an audience viewpoint, where they come in contact with a magician shapes their experiences much – be it on a street, in a mall, a restaurant, a birthday party, a public festivity, or a theatre. Yes! Magic can happen anyplace, but its shaping has to be based and—the experience—limited by the context.

From a performer standpoint, understanding the context well presents an opportunity to work within and beyond the circumstances and make it work to one’s needs. A specially-designed, well-planned, magical locale presents the perfect setting to present memorable magic moments and miracles.

A couple of fantastic places that spring to mind for this are the wonderful Magic Castle in Hollywood and the prestigious Magic Circle HQ in London. With the launch of The Magic Planet, India too is joining the elite club and achieving a perfect context for magical performances.

The Magic Planet is emerging as a never-seen-before venue to present the best of magical experiences. It is now for our magicians to stand up to the occasion and deliver experiences that are memorable and magical.

– This article was originally written for the Magic Academy Trivandrum’s Souvenir for the international attendees at the Planet Magic Launch & Magic Convention (October 2014)

The Science of Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One cannot delve on the topic of magic and science without quoting this immortal line by Arthur C Clarke – a simple statement that is layered with many meanings.

At the basic, it refers to the understanding that magic is perceived to be beyond the realms of science, while also establishing that advancements in science are taking it closer to magic – and fantasy.

It is equally intriguing to look at magic as the “sufficiently advanced technology” that science is vying to achieve and surpass. This paraphrasing of Clarke’s original statement reflects the popular thought in people’s minds. 

Many recent accomplishments of science would fit the same line of thought – be it the Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility that is under development or the more recent IBM announcement of machines that can read a human mind being almost here.

Indeed, Magic and Science have been strange and natural bedfellows. Magicians have always been fascinated with performing effects that belie science, while at the same time using the laws and techniques of science in the most skilful way – to craft magic effects that could fool scientists themselves.

Looking through the annals of magical history, one can quickly find the strong bond shared between these two ‘opposing’ forces. The first stage magicians, including Jean Eugene Robert Houdin—the father of modern magic—presented their magic acts as scientific miracles. There were ample instances where the early magicians projected themselves as being scientists, doctors, and experimenters. 

Similar to the myriad instances of “my (western/new-world) magic is better than your (itinerant/pagan) local magic” where stage magic effects were used to subdue the “witchcraft” of the African shamans, there are numerous examples where magicians projected that they had invented a new device or machine that could achieve the undoable. The beautifully-crafted, clockwork-based automata that could play chess, interact with people, or grow a fruit on a tree are only a few of the better examples.

Magicians have since the ancient days used technology to power their effects, utilising crafty, unseen methods and principles to perform seemingly impossible effects. They have been early adopters of advancements in science and adept at putting it to use in unique ways. For instance, early stage magic was laden with effects performed with electromagnets, where objects suddenly became very heavy or immensely light at the magician’s command.

Over the years, Magic has been referred to as “Smoke and Mirrors,” which has its roots in the vaudevillian magicians using these very elements in their shows. Magicians were among the first to create the onstage illusions of spooky ghost-like images, see-through translucent bodies, and floating or dismembered people using the elements of light and reflection.

Being on the early curve of technology adoption also meant that many magicians have etched their names permanently in world history. French magician George Méliès was the first to use special effects in cinema via his monumental film “A Trip to the Moon,” while British magician Jasper Maskelyne used his magical skills to hide (camouflage) the Allied military forces from the German airplanes in World War II! 

Most magic, even today, is about breaking the common-known laws of science and related logic: levitating objects, teleporting a person across the room, transposing one object with another, or making one solid object pass through another. Classic magic effects like appearing something from nothing, vanishing something into nothing, and changing one object into another – all belong to the same school of thought: of disproving science.

The magicians depend on a secret ingredient to create a unique set of tools and techniques based on the various laws of science to be able to pull wool over the eyes of most – including the scientists. The success of this depends entirely on the elements of Misdirection: the art of directing the audience’s attention to mask and hide the secret moves.

Misdirection is an oft used, but also a least understood word. Misdirection is mostly understood as the ability to misguide the attention of the onlooker; about making the audience look away from where the real action is taking place. In essence, this is what hides the secret of the trick from the prying eyes of the audience.

Yet the best magicians in the world will be the first to tell you that misdirection is actually more about directing the attention than misguiding it. The art of effective misdirection lies in controlling an audience’s attention on specific things and movements, words and actions, all contributing to misdirect them from the actual working of a trick. 

Misdirection deals with controlling and directing the vision, comprehension, and thoughts of a audience in the ways that best suit the magician. This is true of not just the visual magic effects, but also for the psychological magic effects that transpire in the audience’s minds.

The magician is repeatedly seen breaking or dispelling a law of science, as he secretly utilises the principles of one or more complementary laws of science. For example, in performing a levitation effect—where a person or object floats in the air breaking known laws of gravity—the magician may be employing his artful knowledge of geometry and elements of light to create the illusion of a levitating body.

As is popularly said, a performance of magic deals with ‘wilful suspension of disbelief’ among the audience. The audience knows that it is all an act, that it is an impossibility. Yet in that moment the audience wants to believe; they want it to be real. The audience in simple is wilfully playing along with the magician to create magic.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the audience is in tune with Robert Houdin’s words: “The magician is an actor playing the role of a magician”. The audience here becomes a wilful participant making the tricks and effects that they watch – Magic, at least in their minds.

One of the primary reasons Magic continues to fascinate us, is that it connects directly to the human need for fantasy and the unreal. Magicians have been able to address this primary need of their audiences over the years by crafting newer and more impossible-looking illusions, helped along by developments in engineering and technology. 

It is this knowledge that assures us that magic and magicians are here to stay. As advancements in science & technology take the human race closer into realms of magic and fantasy, magicians will continue to bend the laws of science and trigger our imaginations. In fact, magicians will continue to inspire science by pushing the realms of magic per se into higher terrains of unbelievability and fantasy.  

– First published in Popular Science India on September 06, 2012.

Make Magic! Vanish That Stage Fright.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was dressed in a stylish dhoti, adorned with a hand-crafted golden crown, armed with a puny yet beautiful bow and arrow – all making the complete package of Lord Ram. I cried so loud and threw enough of a banter to ensure I never climbed down from the arms of my loving Ajja (grandfather).

True! I was just over five years of age and in upper kindergarten, yet I do remember that occasion of fancy dress competition like it was yesterday. I also remember that not many got to see what I was wearing, since I never went on stage.

Then there was the time when I was in fifth standard. I used to host these “meetings” at home, with my cousins in attendance. We even had our own parliament! Each would play-act the role of a President, Vice President, Chairman, even an Army Chief; we would all give our long speeches, regaling in the pretend world of red-tapism.

So it seemed natural that I would don the guise of ‘Chacha Nehru’ for Children’s Day celebrations at school, dressed in a cute white kurta-pajama, with a Nehru jacket, and a plastic rose to boot. My Ajja typed out this really nice two minute speech, that would have made Nehru proud.

There I was at the side of the stage, peering through the door, awaiting my turn to go on stage. The name was called; I walked up the steps (or perhaps I was pushed in?), went to the microphone, looked at the other kids that made an enormous audience, and made a bolt for my life!

God save the speech. I did not care about it anymore. Nor about Chacha Nehru.

Then there was the time when I was in ninth standard, around which time I was trying my hand at learning magic. Some good-hearted soul in the classroom told the class-teacher, “Nakul knows magic”; and as may be expected, the teacher decided that it was the perfect act for the upcoming talent day.

So there I was a few days later, clutching a small bag with a couple of bulky magic props, praying fervently that they did not call my name. Well, God does exist I realised that day, for they did not call my name and I did not have to go on stage to make a fool of myself!

Yet, in less than two years, life would change to an extent I never thought was possible. I would suddenly take to the stage and make it my own – not just in college, but all over the town, district, state, and country! The stage shy boy had suddenly and rather inexplicably transformed into a stage person and the local celeb!

What was the magic that made all this possible, I too often wonder.

It was right around the age of five that I discovered a comic book “Mandrake The Magician” and allowed my life to be an extension of this imaginary character. I loved the fact that Mandrake could “gesture hypnotically” and make the most amazing magic happen: guns turned into bananas, army tanks into giant frogs, and people sunk neck deep into the earth – all with a mere wave of his hand!

Right about those days – where I ran around with a bath towel tied round the neck in lieu of a cape and a rolled-up newspaper for a top hat – I began to take an active interest in magic. My dad got me this children’s kit (aptly called Learn Magic Kit) and I began play acting as a magician. And with that began my foray into magic.

Yet it took two of the best known magicians from Udupi to make me go on stage. The world-renowned Prof. Shankar and Junior Shankar visited my home one day and saw my feeble attempts at performing magic, gave me a few valuable tips, and promptly gave me my first public show.

There I was again, at age 15, my name on a hoarding, standing behind a curtain with about 500 people waiting expectantly on the other side of it – with nowhere to run. Yet, this time things would be different. For I had learnt the power of magic. No fear of stage or public speaking would now come between me and my audience.

I had heard that speakers mentally tell themselves that they are the topic experts; that those in the audience know nothing and are there only to be educated. This was the recommended trick to get over stage-fright and gain confidence in public speaking.

Yet here I was, suddenly in a unique situation when this was absolutely true! Only I, the magician, knew how the tricks worked and the rest of them were there to be amazed and entertained.

Before I knew it, my confidence was boosted to no bounds and all stage-fright wiped out. I found myself hosting quizzes, emceeing most college events… in fact getting on a stage with just a microphone in hand or not and have the audience eating right off my hands!

The only explanation I have to this phenomenon – a miracle even – is my learning the art and craft of magic; that I took to magic and somewhere aimed at being a real-life Mandrake. For if not for that, I would still be the stage shy, introverted boy I was most part of my early life.

– This article was first published in DNA Blogs on February 11, 2013. Original article appears here and here.

Close Your Eyes! There Is No Crime.

Bangalore made global news as the IT hub of the India. It made headlines when it got added into business vocabulary via Bangalored being included as a word in the dictionary. Now Bangalore seems to be vying for another crown – the comic capital of the world, thanks to the knee-jerk reactions of our government and police.

In response to a mugging of a woman in an ATM, the police laid the blame on the banks for not providing adequate security and facilitated closure of over 1000 ATMs in the city. That this lady was mugged in a busy market area of the city in broad daylight was not as serious a matter for the cops, much as it happened inside an ATM.

It is the responsibility of the bank to provide security inside the ATM, chipped in the state government. Banks will have to provide adequate security or shut down their ATMs, they thundered.

The ATM in question had a working CCTV which captured the robbery in detail, the footage of which should help identify the criminal. Since that would take a long time for our cops, they decided to find something else to show quick (albeit useless) action: close down all ATMs without private security.

Surely our authorities in government and police are aware that the private security provided is for the safety of the ATM itself and not for the protection of the public that utilise the ATMs? Yes, the physical presence of a security guard can cause a deterrent, but what happens once a person leaves an ATM? Or has law and order ceased to be a subject of the state and moved on to being the proprietary of private institutions?

If the police have their way they may want ATMs to be get rid of entirely. After all, we have had instances of entire ATMs being hauled away by thieves, and we are experts at ridding problems at the roots. Their login: if there are no ATMs, then people can’t withdraw money from them, and so can’t be mugged! Problem solved.

Our authorities evidently draws their inspiration from the Hindi adage “naa rahegaa baans, naa bajegi baansuri” (with no bamboo, there can be no flute playing) which was originally proposed as a solution in a folk story to stop snakes from wandering in!

Our knee-jerk (and even foolish) solutions are second to none in the world, and only contribute to making a mockery of our situation and in no way goes to solving the grave issues our society is facing.

Even our proposed solutions to heinous crimes as rape are not very different. No less than the Supreme Court of our country mandated that we remove the sun-films off every vehicle in the country, because of an abduction and rape in a moving vehicle with darkened windows. Then there are those that believe the solution to the problem lies in changing the dress that women wear, or even as simple as calling somebody “bhaiyya“!

There is no real fear of the law or of punitive punishment, and this is gnawing at the moral fabric of the society. The rampant corruption and thievery at the highest levels of our democracy have contributed immensely to the people feeling they can get away with anything. We don’t even follow the most basic of traffic rules anymore, unless we know we are going to get caught for the same!

It is in this context that the Bangalore decision of shutting down ATMs as a solution to the mugging assumes immense significance. If we continue with our myopic approach at addressing issues, where will these knee-jerk actions leave us?

1000 ATMs across the city have been shut down after a woman was mugged live on CCTV camera installed inside it. What next? With limited access to ATMs it would mean people have to find those ATMs with a security guard or go to the banks itself. (Wow! When was the last time you went into a bank to withdraw money?) Would that mean we tend to withdraw more money than usual, to overcome the absence of the friendly neighbourhood ATM?

What happens once we hit the road? Clearly, it is as easy for miscreants to keep track of people leaving with money in their wallets? Will we have to always go in pairs to withdraw money? Perhaps we should leave our wallets at home as it increases the chances of getting mugged? Or stay at home? And how then do we deal with the high number of burglaries and murders that have been happening in various parts of the city?

We the people are in a hapless situation, but what makes it worse is that our authorities appear most clueless. This is as perfect a time as any to analyse and address our issues in a scientific manner – and attempt to find a real fix.

 

– Published at DNA Blogs on December 01, 2013. Original article can be found here.

Murdering Scientific Thinking

That a man was shot dead in broad daylight in a busy area in Pune is scary. That the motive for this cold-blooded murder was to prevent that man from promoting scientific thinking among his people is outright mind-numbing. What has our country come to? 

The inhuman and cowardly shooting of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, one of India’s leading anti-superstition activists raises a lot of questions (and fears) to where our society is headed. Dabholkar, a doctor by education, spent three decades fighting superstition and eradicating blind belief from the minds of his fellow citizens. A most recent feather to his cap was his dedicated campaign to get the Maharashtra government to implement the “Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill”. Where the Bill goes from here, would remain to be seen.

India is a country perturbed by the numerous blind beliefs and superstitions that ride the minds of its people. Fighting this social evil has always been a back-to-wall situation, that is worsened by emotions and religious feelings. Recently, we had another Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku leaving the country as he was attacked by followers of a particular church after he demonstrated the seeming miracle of “a statue dripping blood”.

Yet it is not about religion or religious beliefs. Our people appear quick to accept any claim of a paranormal nature as being supernatural, yogic, or even godly – without asking even the basic questions or applying scientific thought. In fact, our educated and well-to-do seem to be the first-in-line to accredit the claims of the newest swami or godman on the block, thereby validating the faker to the less-qualified and not-so-privileged .

From TV babas to yogic gurus to psychic swamis, we have god-men in all hues and colours, each with more than their share of dedicated followers. We are a country looking for a magic cure for every problem: be it a pseudo-scientific bangle, a magic pill, a taveez, or a psychically-gifted baba, we are gullible to the magic bullet that cures all ills and diseases. So much so, we think our economy can also be saved in the same way!

There are many brave soldiers of rational-thinking continuing the cause spearheaded by Dr Dabholkar, and a well-defined law as canvassed by him will do wonders to strengthen their efforts against superstition. As rationalists and sceptics all over the country mourn the death of one of their key figures, they will be resolving to double their efforts to rid the country of a cancer that has been a major hindrance to its people.

The right to belief is as integral to our well-being as a society, as is the right not to be fooled. It is only a well-developed understanding of rational thinking and an open spirit of inquiry that can prevent the gullible from being fooled by the unscrupulous, fake god-men.

Article 51A of the Indian Constitution asks citizens, “to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. This is the same Fundamental Duties that we all read in primary school, the same section that seeks people respect the national flag and anthem, the same section that demands people uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India. Yet today, a man was shot dead for trying to fulfil his duties to the nation.

Indeed, there are a lot of uncomfortable questions that come to mind, each of which warrant an answer. The real question though remains: what will we do about it?

 

– Published at Mid-Day, Mumbai on August 21, 2013. Original article can be found here.

An App with No User in Mind – MEA India

20130731-191233.jpg

Two days back, the announcement of a new one-stop-app for Android and iOS devices from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) caught my attention. The media reports portrayed it as the answer to all passport woes and the first app of its kind in the world!

Having written in the past about the usability issues of the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) website, I optimistically clicked over to the iOS store and downloaded the much lauded “MEA India” app. The enthusiasm however was short lived as I encountered one usability issue after another with this newly launched app.

The primary issue was that the app did not appear to have any specific target user. With no user personas guiding the design, the app had a life of its own far removed from the real-world needs of the user. In fact, it appears to be an app designed by a committee giving all the importance to their bosses and office hierarchies, and no inkling of the user needs.

The idea to create the app has evidently stemmed from somebody saying let’s create an app, and not with any motivation to solve the issues faced by the users visiting the MEA / PSK websites. After all, the MEA could have chosen to create responsive versions of their websites that would be usable across form factors.

When asked about the primary goal that the MEA App sought to address, Mr Syed Akbaruddin replied, “Providing information, to the extent we can, on a single platform is the goal”. Evidently, making an app was the end all aim and it was not about what the users needed or what would help them.

A cursory user of the app brought to light many usability concerns, including,

  • This was a classic example for user research NOT done. There was no real thought given to user needs or a primary reason to use it
  • The MEA App was not doing anything starkly differently from their website. In fact in many cases, a responsive version of the website would have helped a lot more
  • The app looked and behaved like a website: with a left navigation, a home button, a splash page with a rotary dial, and all that!
  • The app was in no way trying to improve readability & ease of use. With no real user need guiding it, the app was really lost in terms of what it offered

This prompted me to run a more detailed usability review of the app – to try and guide the next version of the app. The result is a detailed 26 page PDF report highlighting problem areas, navigation issues, and other hurdles to a good user experience.

The usability report of the MEA India app is now available for download at the PeepalDesign website.

Driven by a Perennial Need to be Fooled

ARE WE DRIVEN BY A NEED TO BE FOOLED? A LOOK AT THE INTRINSIC NEED AMONG PEOPLE TO BELIEVE IN THE MAKE-BELIEF.

Over the years, one question repeatedly pops up in my mind: “Do we have a perennial need to be fooled?” In many instances this is linked to the world of make-belief that attracts us so much, be it the illusionary world of cinema, theater, or magic.

Yet in many other instances, this has everything to do with our innate need to believe in all things paranormal, and the inexplicable urge to be ‘fooled by extraordinary claims. Is this unique to India, owing to our cultural roots, or is this a global phenomenon, is a thought worth pondering upon.

This thought found its roots a year back as I watched a rather unique interaction on television, where a group of gurus and godmen individually took potshots at the philosophy of another of their brethren. The topic of discussion then was Nirmal Baba, who had burst on the scene and had quickly amassed a following of millions of people.

The aspect that made Nirmal Baba unique–and hilariously funny to some–was the bizarre answers, advice, and solutions he gave to his followers. A devotee suffering from a financial crisis in business was asked “when was the last time you ate pani puri”, and informed that eating some would remedy the situation.

Even the greatest proponents of the powers of placebo would be taken by surprise by Nirmal Baba’s suggestion to another devotee to buy better (branded, more expensive) footwear to remedy his personal situation.

It was interesting to note that while the various godmen spared no effort to ridicule Nirmal Baba, they were careful to protect their own terrain, and use the opportunity to project their own philosophy as “the real one”.

So what is it that makes us believe and act on the most ludicrous of claims, without asking for any semblance of proof? Is our need to believe so strong that it has overpowered all our critical faculties?

A few months back, we saw yoga guru Sri Sri Ravishankar being invited to present an inspirational talk to the students of IIT Kanpur. After having expounded on the philosophies and advantages of yoga, this most celebrated swami decided the time was ripe to do “a special demonstration” for the benefit of the audience.

Having called a student volunteer on stage, the swami asked him to extend his right hand and hold it taut. Exerting sizeable pressure with his hands, the swami pushed the hand down, overpowering the student with ease. Playing the part of an excited scientist to the hilt, the swami brought out a small vial out of his pockets, and dropped one drop of the mysterious liquid on to the student’s hand.

The result: the student seemingly had a surge of energy and strength, and now no amount of pressure exerted by the swami would push his hand down! Why the swami had to indulge in this particular act that has been used by magicians over hundreds of years is anybody’s guess.

The thunderous applause by the audience was mellowed down only a wee bit, when another student walked up on stage and challenged the swami that he would like to try the same. He meant he wished to play the part of the swami and examine if the unbelievable claims could really stand up to his test.

And this is important. For here was a student who exhibited critical thinking and scientific reasoning, and said if this demonstration is real, then it has to work in my hands too. And it is this approach that is seen to be increasingly lacking in our general psyche.

This thought found its roots a year back as I watched a rather unique interaction on television, where a group of gurus and godmen individually took potshots at the philosophy of another of their brethren. The topic of discussion then was Nirmal Baba, who had burst on the scene and had quickly amassed a following of millions of people.

The aspect that made Nirmal Baba unique–and hilariously funny to some–was the bizarre answers, advice, and solutions he gave to his followers. A devotee suffering from a financial crisis in business was asked “when was the last time you ate pani puri”, and informed that eating some would remedy the situation.

Even the greatest proponents of the powers of placebo would be taken by surprise by Nirmal Baba’s suggestion to another devotee to buy better (branded, more expensive) footwear to remedy his personal situation.

It was interesting to note that while the various godmen spared no effort to ridicule Nirmal Baba, they were careful to protect their own terrain, and use the opportunity to project their own philosophy as “the real one”.

So what is it that makes us believe and act on the most ludicrous of claims, without asking for any semblance of proof? Is our need to believe so strong that it has overpowered all our critical faculties?

A few months back, we saw yoga guru Sri Sri Ravishankar being invited to present an inspirational talk to the students of IIT Kanpur. After having expounded on the philosophies and advantages of yoga, this most celebrated swami decided the time was ripe to do “a special demonstration” for the benefit of the audience.

Having called a student volunteer on stage, the swami asked him to extend his right hand and hold it taut. Exerting sizeable pressure with his hands, the swami pushed the hand down, overpowering the student with ease. Playing the part of an excited scientist to the hilt, the swami brought out a small vial out of his pockets, and dropped one drop of the mysterious liquid on to the student’s hand.

The result: the student seemingly had a surge of energy and strength, and now no amount of pressure exerted by the swami would push his hand down! Why the swami had to indulge in this particular act that has been used by magicians over hundreds of years is anybody’s guess.

The thunderous applause by the audience was mellowed down only a wee bit, when another student walked up on stage and challenged the swami that he would like to try the same. He meant he wished to play the part of the swami and examine if the unbelievable claims could really stand up to his test.

And this is important. For here was a student who exhibited critical thinking and scientific reasoning, and said if this demonstration is real, then it has to work in my hands too. And it is this approach that is seen to be increasingly lacking in our general psyche.

More recently, when member of parliament and industrialist, Naveen Jindal launched his latest initiative of the Tiranga bangle, not many blinked at his claims that wearing this “trivortex- treated” copper band healed a variety of ailments, from arthritis to acidity to cancer. And when confronted with evidence that suggested that the claims were a pseudoscientific scam, the MP was quick to brush aside all criticism with a “it has worked for me and so it is real”.

The belief in the “technology” and its promotion by Mr Jindal was so strong that he rubbished all evidence to the contrary with a strong statement of “not by a competent authority”. The fact that the authority turned out to be not only competent but also highly qualified, and serves on the health and food advisory committees of the UN and WHO made no difference to the blind faith imposed in the pseudoscience claims by the wellmeaning Mr Jindal.

That is where the problem really lies. In our ardent need of wanting to believe, we hold on to all the thoughts and ideas that support the philosophy and push aside anything that goes against those beliefs. This is when the need to believe is superceded by the need to be fooled take roost.

The trouble is that this need to be fooled is not limited to religion, spirituality, or healing. It abounds in instances all around us, in every type of extraordinary, unsubstantiated claim made by people; and rather unnecessary, as most could be settled amicably by putting them through a scientific test.

Making a tall claim is in anybody’s hands, but proving that the claim is indeed true is not as easy. This is why, any and all extraordinary claims should be put through a standardized scientific experiment. After all, if a set outcome is claimed off a set of actions, then it is natural to expect that the same outcome would occur in a laboratory test too.

Simply put, every claim should and must be substantiated, and the onus of proving the validity of extraordinary claims lies totally with the claimant. Indeed, it is too easy to say eating sand will heal you of stomach ulcers, but quite another to prove that in a scientific study.

This brings us back to the original thought: have we forgotten to think critically and ask the most primary of questions? Why is it that we do not stop to think and ponder, “so what makes this work?” Even more, what stops us from asking the question, “has this claim been tested and by whom?”

A significant field that then calls attention to itself is hypnotism. A highly debated field, hypnotism had its fair share of supporters and detractors. There are those that say it is real, and then there are those who say it is all make-believe. This debate attains significance when we consider that this difference of thought exists among professional hypnotists themselves! And this difference is further accentuated when we understand that these school of thoughts are well developed and defined.

This is the context that makes me question the idea of “past life regression” that is so popular among many “hypno-therapists” and of course, their hapless clients. Yet, if hypnosis as a field itself is so divided, where many practitioners think of it as the hypnotized person playing along to the suggestions of the hypnotist, what makes past life regression any different?

In fact, it makes it much dangerous. The one known fact about hypnosis is that it is the best tool to fully utilize your creativity. As an extension of that, it is logical to consider that the mental journey “into other lives” is nothing more than creativity let loose. The worry is if people, especially the troubled ones, start believing in these “visions” as real and begin leading their lives per these delusions.

As in the context of that one IIT student who stood up to the most famous godman and asked him to prove the claims he made, it is rather difficult to come across people who stand up and ask the claimant to put his money where his mouths is. In fact, the situation is that people readily empty their pockets blindly believing the claims, without ever stopping to critically examine it.

Why else would people send in thousands of rupees upfront in the hope that the MLM scheme will pay them a margin of that money, month on month? How can anybody with a basic control of their mental faculties fall for the financial and other frauds and scams that we read about every other day?

Is it really the urge to believe in the unexpected and in the extraordinary possibility of the occurance of good, that makes people fall, head first, into every fraud claim and scam that comes their way?

I think not. To me the best answer to this irrational behavior of people lies in their innate need to be fooled. We want to be fooled and so do not wish to ask any difficult questions that will spoil the illusion for us. We want to believe in the hope that our strong belief makes the impossible possible.

In recent times, there has been a marked increase in popular science literature on the aspects that make humans lie, if one goes by the sheer number of books on the subject. Yet it may well be that the issue has a totally different perspective that warrants further study and analysis: the idea that people suffer from an innate need to be fooled.

Magicians call this “a suspended state of wilful disbelief”–a state of mind where the spectator stops asking questions to the how and why of an illusion, and wilfully sets aside all critical abilities. If not for this state of mind, the audience would not be able to enjoy magic the way it is supposed to be.

The same goes for cinema or theater. We put aside all our knowledge that this is make-believe and scripted, and immerse ourselves deep inside the story and live it in the moment-for real. Sadly, this need to be fooled looks to have now gone beyond the four walls of theater and become a part of our lives. The need to be fooled is what drives most of our beliefs beyond the realms of what is logical and scientific. Then again, all this is just a theory, as untested as the other tall claims.

I for one would love to know what the behavioral scientists think about this. Wouldn’t you?

This article originally appeared in Popular Science India, April 2013 issue as “FOOL’S PARADISE“.

Derek & Helder: The New Gurus of Magic

This is a festive time for more than one occasion, and for me there is a magical reason to be most happy. Two close friends of mine have been adjudged the Best Magicians for the year at the Magic Castle, Hollywood – and both for an amazing second year in a row!

Allow me the joy and privilege to introduce you to Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães: undoubtedly two of the finest magicians in the world today. Winning the Best Magician of the Year awards for the second consecutive year for Close-Up and Parlour from the Academy of Magical Arts is only one more feather in the hats of these two highly regaled and accomplished wizards of magic.

Derek has over his rather young years been regarded as one of the finest card workers ever by the people in the know and was featured on the cover of MAGIC magazine in October 2011, while Helder is a FISM award winner and also had his own MAGIC cover in May 2011.

The last year saw Derek and Helder put a special combined show at the Magic Castle where the Who’s Who of Magic lined up for hours and days on end to be mesmerised by these two masters of magical entertainment. This show was so popular that there was a huge waiting list of celebs and magicians that wanted to see it whenever they hosted it again.

And it happened! The last two months have been really magical with Derek & Helder featuring a two-person theatre show, produced by none other than the highly-popular Hollywood actor (and the President of The Magic Castle) Neil Patrick Harris.

This show “Nothing To Hide” that initially opened for a two-week limited run, ran houseful every single day for a record 13-week extension! And now people are still trying to get tickets to a show that ended some days back.

What amazed people from all over the world was that Derek and Helder mesmerised and enthralled each and all with just a pack of cards. No other prop or apparatus was really needed, as the adept magicians weaves a magic spell that has never been experienced before.

International reporters and celebs wrote eloquent about how this was the one show that anybody with any interest in magic had to see. There were write-ups by star reporters who wrote about how and why they had hated seeing magic, and how Derek and Helder had changed all that – that they now loved magic.

This magic is real and can only be real, say the people that experienced it – despite the fact that what they saw was “magic with cards”. And there in is where I see the difference between my friends Derek and Helder and much of the rest of the magic world. Everybody does card magic. They do magic, real magic, with cards.

I have had the good occasion to spend some time and watch the magic that flows from their hands, and can only look forward to the next occasion to watch my friends perform magic as only they can.

The grapevine has it that Derek and Helder are soon going to tour the US with Nothing To Hide, this making it possible for more audiences to experience their brand of magic. And I do hope that the show also tours the world, and comes over to India.

Then again, Derek and Helder’s show is more than worthy of making a special trip to the US for – to experience real magic. And I am making one, soon.

Note: Was first published in the Vishu special issue of the Vismayam Magic News (VMN) April 2013 issue.

Recommended Reading:

With No Fear Of Punitive Action, Lawlessness Rules

With each passing day, we read and hear of an ever-increasing crime rate in the country. From smaller thefts of chain snatching and robbery to large-scale financial and corporate crime, from horrifying kidnappings to inhuman and brutal rape, India looks to be heading to be a state of absolute lawlessness.

Over the last few years, we have seen what can only be described as a general apathy of the government to the pathetic situation of the common man. The nation and its people have been attacked numerous times by terrorists and bombs, and all we hear are assurances – words that the aam aadmi has long realised are meaningless.

At best, our government issues a ‘stern warning’ that they “will not take this lying down,” and the concerned authorities make the usual expected noises of assurance that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Yet with each passing day, we are only scared further by the most daring, daylight crimes, where the criminals clearly have no fear of law or the people in the streets.

The way our children are being abducted and assaulted, women sexually harassed and raped, and older people attacked and murdered in their houses provide us with frightful images that should only exist in the most horrifying movies and not in a real society. After all, what good is a country and its system if we cannot protect our law-abiding citizens from crime and death? What good is a democracy if we cannot safeguard its people?

Numerous behavioural and psychology studies over the years have pointed out that morality is a human construct and is directly proportional to the fear of getting caught; and being punished. No wonder then, that in this country where the current mood is best reflected in the statement “sab chalta hain,” we disturbingly see an utter lack of morality and increase in gross illegal acts.

“You can get away with anything” appears to be the criminal attitude that explains most of these horrendous acts we read and hear about – and at worst, suffer first-hand. I am reminded of Stanley Milgram’s innovative work in 1971 which attempted to study the direct correlation between instances of people getting scot-free for a crime, influencing others to drop their morality filters and indulge in illegal acts.

If watching an episode of a TV programme effected minor changes in the moral behaviour of the persons involved, we can only wonder how the news of the large-scale scams and other criminal acts going unpunished will impact the social fabric of our nation. It may be for a full-fledged social science study to draw conclusive evidence, but an easy extension of existing theories to connect the crime rate to the current political situation.

Deterrence experts and criminologists have long advocated that the rate of crime is directly proportional to the fear of getting caught and the punitive action for the crime. The higher the chances (and fear) of being caught and punished, the lesser the people indulge in the said crimes. Enough research exists where even a simple installation of a camera at a traffic junction or in a troubled neighbourhood, brought down the illegal acts.

Of course, it is not just the installation of the cameras that will do the work. This has to be complemented by an active law and order enforcement that perpetrators will be caught, and more importantly – severely punished. In our situation, it is not really surprising to find that the CCTV cameras too are part of a larger scam and do not really work.

As the most horrifying crimes go unpunished and its perpetrators go scot-free to enjoy their spoils, is it really surprising that more people think they can get away with anything? If left unchecked, the lawless society we all fear is not too far from being our hapless reality.

The only way to stop this is to instil the fear of punitive justice as a deterrent, and to ensure crime does not go unpunished. The question now is: can we?

 

– First published at DNA Blogs on March 06, 2013. The original post can be found here.