The GP magician and his mental magic

Oxfordshire GP Dr Merlin Dunlop describes his lifelong interest in magic and his show, which involves 'mental magic'.

How did you first become interested in doing magic?

I was about seven years old, my parents had taken me to Hamleys toy store and I saw a magician demonstrating a magic trick. I was very taken with it. I asked my parents to get me a magic set for my birthday and it evolved from there.

I graduated from magic set tricks to more advanced stuff and I did that until I was about 16 - I used to do magic at children's parties with a friend. When I reached A-levels and medical training I was still interested in magic, but I didn't have time to practise, so it fell by the wayside for seven or eight years.

I was working in A&E after I qualified when it started again. I saw some young, miserable patients and thought I might be able to cheer them up. In the event it didn't really work, because miserable children in A&E don't want to see magic, it's the ones on the wards who do.

Also, around then I became more involved in simulated mind reading, which is less suitable for children because it doesn't involve colourful props.

What does your current magic show involve?

It relates to the mind. Simulated mind reading is all about predicting hidden choices and extracting hidden information from people.

It's the illusion that you are reaching inside people's brains and finding out things telepathically. It's also about influencing people. So it's mental magic as opposed to making something disappear and reappear in a puff of smoke.

I became interested in this aspect of magic because I think it is the last bastion of mystery. People who see someone appear out of a box on stage don't care how the trick is done, they will satisfy themselves that it's something to do with the box.

A modern audience with the internet at its disposal is much less able to suspend disbelief, whereas people seem to really want to believe in mental magic and mystical stuff. That intrigues me - it still has that 'is it or isn't it real' element, whereas with traditional magic, people think it's clever and that's about it.

What is it that you like about being able to do magic?

Doing magic provides me with a bit of light-hearted escapism from the seriousness of medicine. I'm inherently a jokey type of person, so I couldn't cope without having something that was more trivial and ephemeral in my life.

Would you give up practice to pursue magic full-time?

The magic is definitely a hobby. In 2010 I joined the Magic Circle, which gives me some credibility, but I'm still a keen amateur rather than a professional magician.

I wouldn't give up general practice for magic. The appeal is that I can do as much or as little of the magic as I wish and no one is relying on it.

What kind of events do you perform magic at?

I perform mainly for people who ask me directly by word of mouth, mostly at private events.

I also do a show for my colleagues every year, at the practice's annual away day.

Has being a GP influenced your magic in any way?

Definitely. The more medicine I've done, the more it's influenced my magic and, quite surprisingly, my magic has influenced my medicine.

The learning you get from seeing hundreds of people from all walks of life in a clinical setting gives you an edge when it comes to anything involving the use of psychology. You have a vast population from which to draw experiences, which enables you to make Sherlock Holmes-type deductions about people from various character traits.

The psychological things you learn when doing this type of magic also help in consultations. Techniques such as how to be very persuasive can help you to encourage a shy patient to open up.

I really hadn't expected the magic to influence the medicine, but there are elements of performance that occur in any consultation, like welcoming people, managing their expectations, cueing people to do certain things and use of body language and gestures.

What do your patients think about you being a magician?

I'm not sure how many of them actually know, probably more than have told me. I've never had a negative response. I've only had interest, intrigue, requests for a demonstration, or, more frequently, jokes such as, 'Oh doctor, can you make the wife disappear then?'

You also run a business selling IT services to other GP practices. What does that involve?

A GP friend and I both moved over to EMIS Web two years ago and we liked the fact that it was easy to customise for our own practices. We wrote lots of protocols and alerts for our own use and realised that what we had done would be useful for other GPs.

Our business, QOF Masters, provides a service for optimising a practice's potential from the QOF and enhanced services.

We have a system to look back at all of a practice's records and identify any coding mistakes. We also install customisation tools that will then correct things on a continuing basis, so in future, there would be no further miscoding.

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