The Science of Magic

Explore why magic is a unique tool for gaining new insights into human cognition, neurobiology, and behaviour.
Available on CBC Gem

The Science of Magic

Nature of Things

Magic has become the latest investigative tool for scientists exploring human cognition, neurobiology, and behaviour. Across Canada, the US and Europe, our film follows researchers who are bringing magicians’ tricks into the laboratory.  With impossible magic, amazing facts, and opportunities for viewers to participate in the magic, this extraordinary exploration peeks behind the curtain into a fascinating world where ancient magic meets modern science. 

Canadian magician and executive director of the arts organization Magicana, Julie Eng not only mystifies us with magic, she also takes us to Montreal’s McGill University to meet Jay Olson. He is one of the scientists spearheading this novel and powerful approach to experimental psychology.  On the streets of Montreal Julie and Jay use card tricks to help us understand how magic can be used to explore human consciousness. But these simple tricks have given way to more elaborate experiments. We join Jay at the Montreal Neurological Institute for an extraordinary demonstration involving an MRI machine that can apparently not only read minds but can even use its electromagnetic fields to manipulate your most private thoughts. 

FROM THE FILM: Magician Julie Eng hits the streets to perform a magic trick.

While investigating vision and traffic accidents professor Ronald Rensink at The University of British Columbia discovered an intriguing phenomenon known as “change blindness”. This refers to how a small distraction (like a splash of mud on the windshield) can blind a driver to seeing something that should be obvious (like the freight train in the path of a car). This interest in how we can miss things that are right in front of our eyes led professor Rensink into the world of magic. The ability of conjurors to trick normal perception offered him new insights and new ways of studying these questions. We join professor Rensink as he, and Swedish magician Tom Stone, discuss new experiments to study how our senses are fooled and what science can learn from magic.

In the US we meet with professor Anthony Barnhart. He’s a magician turned scientist who is using ancient knowledge to provide new insights into why – even when there are no distractions — we sometimes don’t see what’s right under our noses. We also meet Professor Amory Danek who is using the conjuror’s craft to study creativity and the “Aha!” moment when we get a sudden insight into how a problem can be solved. 

What Magic Has Taught Us About How The Brain Works
Top Canadian Magicians and the Tricks that Made Them Famous
More Trickery From The Magicians open in The Science of Magic

We travel to London England for the first meeting of the Science and Magic Association (SOMA) where Gustav Kuhn conducts a study that tracks the eye movements of the magician’s audience. We see tricks that fool us despite nothing actually happening, as well as demonstrations that reveal we can be blind even to our own choices. 

As surprising as many of the magic tricks are, the really big shock comes when we realize that as Julie tells us, just before she vanishes, that it’s our own brains that are the magicians —  weaving reality out of fleeting impressions.

Colourful and compelling, our film takes a critical and engaging look at the fascinating facts revealed when you see the human mind through the eyes of a magician.