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The Mechanics of Magic: A Cognitive-Intuitive Model

What is magic and how does it work? As anyone with an interest in the study and practice of magic and a search engine knows, the answers are legion. For all intents and purposes, everyone has a general idea of what magic is, and those idea are good enough. Even so, the following dissertation benefits from a narrow set of initial ideas. Because the mechanics of magic is to be a practical treatment, it starts with why people use magic:
People do magic to cause intended change. So for present purposes, a most generic definition may be: magic isthe nature of change. Then, to rule out flipping a light switch to brighten the room, we can add: by unusual and mysterious means.
With that out of the way, consider magic as a process, starting with the things that people do to make magic happen.

A generic act of magic starts with a need for a change. From there the process goes:

  1. Specify the desired outcome.
  2. Plan an act of magic.
  3. Perform the magic act.
  4. Mysterious things happen to bring the outcome about.
  5. Realize the outcome (if it worked).

The model assumes there are always non-magical efforts at work as well, as an adjunct to the magic. The point is that the magic act should add something more, something mysterious at step 4.

The most common explanations for how magic works tend to depend on the type of magic act performed. For example, when a magic working includes calling on spirits, spirits do the mysterious work at step 4. If one develops an energy construct, energy does the work. Consecrate a planetary talisman and planetary forces do the work. In contrast, the Mechanics of Magic model depends only on aspects of human nature. There is no assumption of supernatural forces in play, even if there are.

A Cognitive-Intuitive Model of Magic

The Base Assumptions:

  • The primary effects of a magic act are on the operator (the person who performs the magic).
  • Changes in the world at large are secondary to changes in the the operator.
    • Effects in the world stem from the operator’s overt behavior.

The Process

  1. The magic act enhances the operator’s perceptual acuity for goal-relevant changes.
  2. The magic act simultaneously establishes goals-specific, prepotent behavioral biases.

Together, those effects promote meaningful behavior as and when it matters most. It would seem the mystery of magic is undone by the explanation, but it isn’t. The mystery remains, because these cognitive processes are automatic. They need no effort to evoke, and no control to run their courses. The end result is being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things. More to the point, having arrived at the goal of the magic, it seems nothing short of a miracle.

To avoid confusion, an automatic cognitive process isn’t an unconscious process in a Freudian sense. It’s more accurately described an effortless process that simply runs when triggered. The magic act, in effect sets meaningful triggers. The operator does becomes aware of these processes that the point of generating behavior, as intuition. It’s the subtle urge to favor one option over another, without deliberation. Those little urges may seem to come from nowhere. But as explained, there are meaningful cognitive processes running underneath them.

Improving the Processes

It is possible to improve the quality of the prepotent biases. The following non-magical activities tend to be helpful:

  • An elaborate inferential base.
  • A habit of responding to behavioral biases in a reflexive manner.

One’s inferential base comes from their history of learning and experience. A formal education helps to some degree, but motivated self-study is as good. Studies that demand a lot of if/then reasoning are most useful. Interacting with contingent outcomes also helps. That’s where an outcome will be different if X is true vs. when Y is true, and so on. An occupation that involves routine problem solving is likely to be very helpful too. The more real-world the problem-solving the experience, the better.

Developing a habit of reflexive responding to behavioral biases takes some conscious effort in the early going. One sets it as a goal then anytime an intuitive twinge arises, on acts on it. A good outcome serves as positive reinforcement for the reflex, and it grows stronger. If one notices a intuitive sensation and ignores it, or if the outcomes are not so good, the reflex will take longer to develop. But stay with it. Work on the quality of the behavioral biases as much as possible. That should make the outcomes good more often. And commit to acting on intuition. As the magic improves, the reflex will take over, by and by.

Something else that can help is making the the magical features of an act more magical, in a sense. Or more real in another sense. For example, a certain style of spell casting calls on the operator to create magical space. The instructions given actually work on the operator more than the space. The effect is to transform the operator’s state from their ordinary work-a-day conscious to a special state that is only experienced during magic operations. Making that magical state more distinctive, and being able to get to it more reliably may contribute to the process. Theoretically, the more magical one feels during the operation, the stronger the perceptual acuity and behavioral biases will be.


According to the model, magic outcomes depend on the operator’s behavior. The behavior in question amounts to responding to intuitive signals as they arise. Examples include: accepting or declining an offer, spending more or less time with a given person, or turning left instead of right at a given intersection, etc. Behavior like that is notably not expected to stop the rain, freeze a lake, or cause an earthquake. The practical benefits of causing earthquakes is a subject for another place and time. For present purposes, the cognitive-intuitive model can explain the effects most people do magic for: winning a court case, fostering romance, getting the school to treat your kid with the respect they deserve, etc.

Concluding Remarks

Some readers may reject the model for the noted lack of romance, or whimsy. That’s both expected and accepted. Modern magician are a notably romantic lot. Magic work doesn’t depend on accepting this model. It’s available here because understanding it does provide novel avenues for improving results. Persons of a certain sensibility may even find the model inspiring. That would be a romantic of another sort.
Wherever you stand on the model, it wasn’t offered as truth. It’s a model and nothing more. You’re invited to take it or leave it, with our humble compliments.

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