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Department: Psychological Science
Title: Chair, Psychological Science Department; Assistant Professor of Psychological Science
Best Office Artifact: Autographed Mr. Rogers photo
A professional magician turned psychology professor turned leading expert in the psychology of magic, Anthony Barnhart uses his unique background and expertise to invigorate Carthage’s Department of Psychological Science and his students’ learning.
Prof. Barnhart started performing magic at 7 years old and hasn’t stopped including it in his everyday life since. After collaborating on a popular neuroscience of magic publication in graduate school, he has published further research on the science of magic, been featured on the Canadian television program ”The Nature of Things with David Suzuki,” and served as the conference chair for the 2019 Science of Magic Association conference. He has shared his success with many Carthage students over the years, bringing them to conferences to present research and mentoring them through the SURE program.
We spoke to Prof. Barnhart about his accomplishments, favorite Carthage memories, advice for students, and interdisciplinary work in the worlds of magic and science.
How did you become interested in psychology?
“Before I was a psychologist, I was a professional magician. When you are paid to deceive the senses, you become intimately aware of just how fallible the human mind is, so many magicians are naturally drawn to psychology. I just took my interest further than most. As an undergraduate psychology major, I was lucky to have professors who encouraged me to develop my thinking on the relationships between performance magic and psychology, only solidifying my interests in psychology.”
What was your journey to becoming a Carthage professor like? Why did you choose Carthage?
“After completing my Ph.D. in cognitive science at Arizona State University, I worked as a faculty member at Northern Arizona University for a few years. I loved my time at NAU but felt drawn to a more intimate, liberal arts environment like the one at which I received my undergraduate degree. The life of an academic at a large state institution is quite different than that of a professor in the liberal arts. At many large state schools, your contact with undergraduates tends to be minimized, and when you are teaching undergraduates, it’s in enormous, impersonal lecture halls. Your life is spent seeking out grant funding and supervising graduate researchers (who, in turn, supervise undergraduates). The constant search for grant money does not appeal to me. I’m a low-budget operation. I don’t need millions of dollars to continue carrying out the kind of research that I do. Furthermore, I think my research in the cognitive science of magic and illusion has great utility in inspiring curiosity and appreciation for psychological science in undergraduates. It is also inherently interdisciplinary since it brings together performance art with psychological science. A liberal arts institution is perfectly situated to support this kind of interdisciplinary exploration. A final motivating factor for coming to Carthage was that I was born and raised in the Midwest, as was my wife. We were excited to return to our roots.”
You also work as a part-time magician and have had great success blending science and magic in your professional research. Could you explain how magic and psychology have intersected in your life and career? Have you always been interested in magic and what does it mean to you?
“I’ve been really lucky to be able to marry my two passions: Psychological Science and Magic. I started performing magic when I was 7 years old and performed professionally through high school, college, and graduate school. Magic is a unique mechanism for bringing the experience of wonder to large groups of people, and it was a great opportunity for me to be creative. However, I didn’t necessarily see a future in it for me, because the entertainment business is terrifying!
“I went to graduate school to be a language researcher. To that end, I have published a good amount of work exploring the mechanisms underlying our impressive ability to read messy, handwritten text. However, while I was in graduate school, I began to see people publishing scientific work using the techniques of magicians as a tool for studying attention and perception. I thought to myself, ‘There is absolutely nothing that makes me particularly well-equipped to study word perception, but I have all of these years of training in magic that put me in a unique position to jump into this new line of research!’ I looked into who was doing work on the science of magic, and realized that two prominent researchers were just down the road from me at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. I reached out to them and we struck up a long-term collaboration.
“While I was still a graduate student, I contributed some ideas to a popular science book that these folks were writing on the neuroscience of magic (Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions), and the collaboration has continued beyond graduate school. Just last month, we published a piece together in the Journal of Eye Movement Research. I am proud to be at the forefront of this exciting new research program and to be in a position to build connections between these seemingly disparate areas.”
How have you pushed students outside of their comfort zones?
“Exploring cognitive psychology almost forces humility upon people! As students learn about how cognitive processes evolve and develop, they become aware of all of the ‘holes’ in cognition … all of the mental shortcuts that we take that blind us to reality. The sometimes unfounded assumptions we make about our experience of the world open the door to lots of irrational patterns of thought. Students in my classes are forced to consider how they have fallen prey to patterns of irrational, magical thinking, and that realization can be truly uncomfortable for many.”
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“I hope my students will come away with a new-found respect for psychological science and a robust intellectual curiosity.”
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What do you hope students take away from working with you, either in class or through opportunities like the SURE Program?
“I hope my students will come away with a new-found respect for psychological science and a robust intellectual curiosity. Psychological Science is hard. Unlike other sciences, we cannot measure what we are studying directly, so we have to generate creative techniques for doing our science. I hope students will also come away with a more critical eye for ‘pop psychology,’ which is typically based on the worst science.”
Any favorite memories or moments from your time at Carthage so far?
“Two summers ago, a film crew from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited Carthage and featured work from my lab in an episode of the long-running popular science show, ‘The Nature of Things with David Suzuki.’ It was really exciting to be able to showcase the work of Carthage students in this highly respected, international venue. The footage can only be viewed in Canada, currently, but the producers anticipate that an international version of the documentary will come out in the next year or so. You can watch the trailer for the episode at https://youtu.be/YRYsUy61gY0.”
What are some hobbies or interests you have that may be surprising to students?
“I attended Augustana College on theatre and vocal performance scholarships, and while I was in college I founded an acapella quintet called Cruisin’ for a Bluesin’. Coincidentally, Dr. Brownholland’s sister-in-law was the soprano in my group! You can hear one of our tunes here.”
What is your favorite class to teach?
“Without question, Cognitive Psychology is my favorite core curriculum course. Cognitive Psychology presents students with a relatively unique way of looking at the mind. … At least it’s a perspective that most haven’t considered before college. It also happens to be my most well-honed class. Of course, my other favorite class is my J-Term course on The Cognitive Science of Magic. It allows me the opportunity to present students with a unique experience, being immersed in a content area and learning about the topic from movers and shakers in the field. A few times a week we have visitors from the worlds of science or magic who tell the students about what they’re working on or thinking about. I also organize field trips so that students can experience magic ‘in the wild.’”
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“It’s never too early for a student to become involved in research! I encourage students to reach out to their professors if they’re interested in getting involved.”
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What advice do you have for new or prospective students interested in psychology?
“My advice would be for students to know what they’re getting into! As a department of Psychological Science, science is at the heart of our curriculum. In nearly every class, they will have contact with research, either consuming it or carrying it out on their own. Our major teaches students how we use science to understand the mind. The centerpiece of the curriculum is our two-course sequence of Research Methods and Statistics, and every course thereafter builds upon the knowledge gained in these courses. I advise students to put their all into the Research Methods and Statistics courses. Success in those will almost guarantee success in the rest of the major.”
Anything else you would like students to know?
“It’s never too early for a student to become involved in research! The Department of Psychological Science has four thriving research labs. I encourage students to reach out to their professors if they’re interested in getting involved.”
— Interview by Madeline Paakkonen ’21, Photos by Jenna Link 22