Magic Tricks Reveal Inner Workings of the Brain

Researchers argue that magicians may help solve mysteries of the mind.


July 24, 2008 — -- Magic tricks may look simple, but they exploit cognitive patterns that scientists are only beginning to understand.

Now some psychologists are considering how they can use magic to advance our understanding of the brain -- and perhaps help inoculate us against advertising.

"For most of the past century, [magic tricks have] been ignored, even though the effects are large, replicable, and experienced by just about everyone," said University of British Columbia psychologist David Rensink.

In a paper published yesterday in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Rensink and Durham University psychologist David Kuhn argue that the collective wisdom of magicians, honed for millenia by the gazes of suspicious crowds, contains insights for investigators of human perception and cognition.

A science of magic, they write, could take both cognitive science and magic to new heights -- and that's not all. It could help people defend themselves from the tricks of advertisers.

"A magician's force relies on the spectator being unaware that his or her choice is being manipulated," they write. "A science of magic could provide us with valuable ammunition in this regard."

So how do magicians turn the laws of nature on their heads, if only for a moment? Kuhn and Rensink break it down:

Physical misdirection. When a magician looks at a certain spot or makes a particular gesture, our attention is naturally drawn to it. And though we like to think that we're aware of everything in our field of vision, we're generally oblivious to all but the object of our focus.

Psychological misdirection. Just as the attention of our eyes can guide, so can the attention of our minds. A casual motion belies its importance to a trick. Heightened suspense muddles the audience's focus on the mechanics of a routine. The mere mention of a false explanation precludes notice of the real one.

Optical illusion. The most-obvious of a magician's tools: Shifts of perspective distort the true size of an object, and there's no end to what can be done with mirrors.

Cognitive illusion. Because of the delay between raw perception and cognitive processing, our minds feed us an image of reality that's actually a fabricated prediction of the near future. By exploiting that delay, a magician can trick us into seeing what isn't there -- or missing what is.

Physical force and mental force. You pick a card at random, of your own free will. But how compromised is that will? Are the cards really shuffled? Is the deck stacked? Has one card been displayed a little longer than the others -- not so long as you notice, but long enough that you instinctively pick it?

And these tricks, say Kuhn and Rensink, are just the beginning. They call on scientists to explain "all known magic effects in terms of known perceptual and cognitive mechanisms." When a trick can't be explained, then scientists will know that they're on to something new; and when they find something new, magicians can use it to invent tricks.

The benefits won't stop there. Magicians aren't just found at children's parties and street corners; they're everywhere.

"Many of the techniques used in advertising and political propaganda resemble the methods of the magician," write Kuhn and Rensink. "Because there will always be motives for manipulating our choice, an important challenge for the future will be to understand these techniques sufficiently to ensure our free will."

There you go: magicians as revolutionaries! Just think how much better V for Vendetta would have been if V made Parliament disappear instead of blowing it up.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events