This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about visual perception in developmental psychology. In this post I’ll reflect on a specific situation, recount my initial interpretation, and pose a few questions that were raised.

A while back, at a children’s birthday party, I happened to observe a difference between the ways in which older and younger children responded to a magic show.

I noticed that the much younger children enjoyed the magician’s voice and performance, and the bright and interesting objects he manipulated, but didn’t seem so intrigued by the tricks themselves. With the older children, the effect seemed to be reversed.

At the time, I hypothesised that the enjoyment of a magic trick or illusion requires a highly-developed understanding of reality, so that its subversion is sufficiently surprising. But it also seems to require the ability to experience two things at once: 1) that reality is fixed and cannot be violated; and 2) that reality is being violated right now, as the illusion is carried out. That is – there’s a huge gap between 1) and 2) and the mind seems to traverse it with dizzying and thrilling ease. (This reminded me of Romantic poetry – “the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man …” – the wonder of nature, but also the sublimity of the mind’s encountering and containment thereof.)

Is the enjoyment of magic a learned behaviour? Shouldn’t these experiences of illusion frighten rather than delight a child? Is it socially optimal to teach children this particular sensation – the impossible-made-possible and the consequent sense of the mind’s capaciousness – so that they can identify and even domesticate it in genuinely frightening situations?