Pulling a thesis out of a hat

By Katy Inglis


Watching magic tricks as a child made Katy want to find out how they did it.

I was 10 years old the first time I watched a show by Derren Brown, a hugely popular British magician/showman.  At that age, I didn’t quite believe in magic any more – I knew there was some kind of trick to it somewhere, if I could only see it – but I couldn’t get over how even through the television I was duped repeatedly.

I became fascinated with the elements of showmanship he employed, particularly the use of non-verbal cues to misdirect an audience’s attention.  As a child, that meant I started devouring books on body language.  (I should add that I have always been hugely driven academically, and I love to learn for the sake of learning.  Even when I was 10).  It became something of a hobby for me to learn about these non-verbal messages we use, but when it was time for me to apply to university, the possibility of studying Psychology hadn’t crossed my mind.

Originally, I applied to do Law.  I was young and influenced by the earning potential – what can I say, my academic morals weren’t quite established then.  However, meeting my boyfriend in the same year I was meant to do my Highers (Scottish A-Levels to everyone else) meant that not quite as much studying got done as was necessary and I didn’t make the cut.  Desperate to go to university, I applied to do Psychology and, happily, was accepted.

Doing Psychology as an undergraduate added a new depth to my hobby.  I started learning about the motivations for human behaviour and began to focus my reading about non-verbal cues on deception.  I was fascinated with how people could lie without saying a word.  I continued to watch Derren Brown on TV and added more shows to my repertoire, like Lie to Me, which hit screens in 2009 and introduced me to the legend that is Paul Ekman.  I have told this story to several people who have exclaimed I just like to watch TV, which – although somewhat true – is a little unfair.  I’m aware of the limits of these programmes and the artistic license they employ to create a good story, but their influence on my life is pronounced; I wouldn’t be doing this PhD without them.  For that reason, I can’t tell my story fully without telling you about them.  (And as an aside, if you’ve never seen either – get watching!)

More slowly than I like to admit – given the seemingly obvious connection in hindsight – I began to put the two together.  Magicians deceive professionally, though I’m quick to add this is not in a malicious way.  Instead, they foster a sense of enjoyment, wonder and awe in their audiences who go to these shows deliberately for the experience of being misled.  Misdirection is to magicians what the Bible is to a preacher.  Once I had that particular eureka moment, my path was clear.

I was incredibly fortunate to do my undergraduate degree in a university where one of the few psychologists who research magic works.  It was a rocky road to getting funding, but I was able to create a proposal that would allow me to live the dream and begin my PhD in the Psychology of Magic.  Essentially, my thesis investigates how magicians learn to manipulate social attention to be successful at misdirection.  I began to discover that magic wasn’t just cool; it gives psychologists an amazing tool to tap into all sorts of aspects of cognition.  The body of research is growing and soon I will be contributing to it.

Katy Inglis is a first year PhD student at the University of Dundee.  She holds a First Class Honours degree in Psychology and has worked as research assistant and an assistant psychologist between graduating in 2010 and starting her PhD in 2011.  Her academic blog is Not Just Another PhD, and she tweets far too much at @katy_inglis. You can also find out more at The Secret Diary of a Twentysomething.  When she occasionally has a life outside her PhD, Katy trains in Taekwondo, learns German, makes things (including really good cakes) and watches *all the things* at the cinema.  You can view her professional blurb at the University of Dundee’s Psychology People page.


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