I saw the bird trick for the first time at age 6, when I made my inaugural visit to California. We visited San Diego and saw Richie, my grandmother’s nephew, who was a magician and illusionist. He looked the part, with a black chevron mustache, curly hair and a wacky plaid shirt. He was a professional photographer, but his main skill, particularly around children, centered on correctly guessed Bicycle playing cards and disappearing quarters.

Richie ripped off two strips of tissue and wet them with his tongue before wrapping one around each pointer finger. On the living room carpet with his knees pressed to the ground, he sang a song:

Two little blue birds, sittin’ on a hill.
One named Jack, the other named Jill…
Fly away, Jack. Fly away, Jill.
Come back, Jack. Come back, Jill.

During the first line, Richie bounced his extended index fingers jauntily with all his other fingers tucked under his thumbs. In the second line of the ditty, he raised one finger, then the other, to give each Kleenex blue bird its due recognition. The third line heralded a peculiar disappearing act: Richie reached his left hand behind my right ear and brought it back to his lap to demonstrate a missing Jack, a tissue-less finger; he did the same with his right hand behind my left ear, as Jill flitted away. But instantly, for the fourth line, he launched each hand behind my ears to reveal the return of the tissue blue birds on his fingers.

The saliva made the trick effective. The moisture so securely bonded the Kleenex to his fingers that it would have been impossible for Richie to remove the tissue strips and resecure them in a split-second. I even checked my earlobe to crack his legerdemain.

This was true magic, I was convinced.

Believing in magic is generally considered a callow faith, clung to by foolish young’uns who have a long distance relationship with reality. Magic disappeared as something sane to subscribe to after the Renaissance when the Scientific Enlightenment explained away hocus pocus. But psychologist Eugene Subbotsky argues that despite the rise of scientific reasoning in Western Civilization, children as well as adults still accept magic deep down. In his paper “The Ghost in the Machine: Why and How the Belief in Magic Survives in the Rational Mind,” Subbotsky argues the acceptance of magical beliefs seeps into the subconscious despite our inherent rationality. My two encounters with Richie, once as a child and again as an adult, convinced me that’s actually for the better.

But the benefits of believing in magic go further: In “Access to Western Esotericism,” Antoine Faivre says that magic rears its head when we try to process correspondences that “unite all visible things and likewise unite the latter with invisible entities.” There simply are some unseen elements in life that defy scientific cause and effect. Attributing the inexplicable to magic may seem hokie, but in certain instances, rationality short-changes a particular phenomenon.

Sitting there on the floor with Richie, I remember having a clear thought: California was weird. It was a majestic foreign land, where fortunes could be made and just as easily read. Sometimes they just vanished into thin air.

I made it to the Golden State but twice in the next 20 years and would next see Cousin Richie by chance on the East Coast when his daughter invited me and my wife to her immersive production of “The Seagull” in the Hudson Valley. That’s where I got more insight into the benefits of magic.

Toward the start of the second act, the musicians put on noise-blocking earmuffs, the kind worn by air-traffic controllers. I braced myself for a sonic blast, which came by way of a gun shot from the lake; it was Konstantin shooting a seagull to gift Nina.

As the gun went off, two swallows zipped in a terror out of a tree over the set. Given that the performance was outside, it was difficult to tell whether this was a planned flight or happenstance. The timing was eerily on cue, the flapping path too smooth to be random — a type of magic, one could argue.

We look for level-headed interpretations, always. But peeling off the layers of explanations — physical, chemical — we hit road blocks, logical chasms. Carl Jung opted not to explain magic away. Instead, he wrote in 1938, there’s psychological worth in how magic and religion can allow us to function effectively in society: “What is usually and generally called ‘religion’ is … a substitute. … The substitution has the obvious purpose of replacing immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.” Magic, in short, allows us to put reality through a strainer, interpret it and its peculiarities in a compartmentalized fashion. Direct experience — unexpurgated, 100 proof — can be confusing, dangerous: a strange flight of birds, a fluke helicopter crash. Magic helps with our orientation or relativization of events. It is the experience itself we’re imbibing, and magic can help with the swallow. In some senses, this view of magic’s role in our psychology makes it quite complex. Indeed, as Harry Houdini said, “Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.”

During intermission of “The Seagull,” we bumped into Richie and sat with his grandkids. Richie, kneeling in the grass, performed a new trick: by rubbing a key into his elbow, he seemed to transport it in an instant into his hand. Ta-da. His grandson, amazed, took the key and started grinding it into his elbow.

“Are you making progress?” Richie asked.

“Do the bird trick!” Richie’s grandson countered.

“What, this one?”  Richie said, displaying a coin and flapping his crossed hands like a bird to make it disappear (open palms — empty) and reappear. Prestidigitation at its best.

That wasn’t the trick his grandson wanted. I bounced my index fingers on my lap to remind Richie of his trademark feat.

He took a quilted napkin, a bit crumpled on his empty paper plate, and tore off two thin strips. He licked the napkin strips and secured them to his index fingers.

Two little blue birds, sittin’ on a hill.
One named Jack, the other named Jill…
Fly away, Jack. Fly away, Jill.
Come back, Jack. Come back, Jill.

Richie so tenderly requested the return of the birds, enunciating a certain urgency in the words “come back” — so sweetly confounding his grandson with these wiles.

His grandson demanded to know how Richie did this. He banged his fist in the grass, an unsurprising response: Our brains do crazy things when exposed to magic — in one study, watching magic tricks caused activity to spike in the left brain hemisphere of the subjects, as they formed hypotheses in a situation not immediately explainable.

Children consciously dismiss magic, Subbotsky argues, but accept it subconsciously as a possibility. Hence this frustration looking for a reasonable explanation for the bird trick. Subbotsky conducted a psychology experiment with Russian 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds where they were asked if a picture of an object could be transformed into that object by a spell. Although only the 4-year-olds accepted this as a possibility, children of all three ages recited the appropriate incantation when the experimenter left the room to give the charm a chance. Acceptance of magic, Subbotsky says, can augment creativity in children. But though it may be latent, magical thinking doesn’t disappear in adults. After Subbotsky damaged a plastic card by placing it in “magical” box, he asked his adult experiment participants to try their licenses. Only 12 percent in this control group refused. In the experimental group when he asked participants to do the same, but with their hands, 50 percent balked.

There are benefits to accepting a little bit of abracadabra. Superstitious behavior, thinking that we can control the outcome of a sports game by watching – these are all elements of magical believing. We want to feel like we have some control over destiny. Sometimes that control is even effective — there’s psychoneuroimmunology, how factors (like the placebo effect) can influence health and combat disease.

If gravitating toward magic is in our nature — and if at times it can be helpful, even if inherently misguided — why eschew it?

“Tell me!” Richie’s grandson yelled, searching for an explanation.

I was older now and understood the mechanics of the bird trick, saw the subtle, almost unnoticeable really, switcheroo of the pointer and middle fingers — the former be-tissued, the latter bare. Still the possibility of so much promise, of a powerful force — one of peculiar coincidences and uncertain forces — brought me a strange comfort.

Richie wouldn’t explain the bird trick to his grandson. Instead he offered an alternative.

“Want me to make myself disappear?”

At that point, I perked up and as slack jawed as the little boy beside me, I waited for him to vanish