Magic Tricks Reveal Inner Workings of the Brain

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

ByABC News
July 23, 2008, 5:53 PM

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.