What magic has taught us about how the brain works

Magicians don’t have supernatural powers after all, but they are experts at exploiting powerful and surprising limitations in human cognition.

Magicians don’t have supernatural powers after all, but they are experts at exploiting powerful and surprising limitations in human cognition. They’re now sharing their secrets with scientists to study how the brain works.

Jay Olson, a former professional magician, now studies psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University and is featured in the documentary, The Science of Magic: “We’re trying to find these pieces of knowledge that magicians have, that as psychologists, we don’t understand. We bring them into the lab and try to figure out how they work.”

Magician’s force is powerful

Using ‘‘magician’s force”, these tricksters influence our decision-making process to steer the choices we make — like when we select a card from a deck.  Olson took to the streets and found that 98% of people chose the card he influenced them to choose and 91% of them say they felt like they made a free choice. He and others who are working in this new field are providing fresh insights into how the brain works.

Here are some concepts that magicians reveal to us in The Science of Magic.

Failure to see

Often we can’t see obvious things that are right in front of us. Most magic involves a lot of appearing and disappearing and scientific research has shown us how easily magicians are able to trick us. 

Our eyes can only see clearly in the centre area of our visual field. This means we can only really see one thing at a time. To see more objects in our environment, we actually have to move our eyes around a couple of times a second. But each time we move them, our brain needs to attend to something new creating a lag of about 1/10 of a second. Our brain fills in those gaps based on what it expects will happen.  

See an example.

FROM THE FILM: Julie Eng performs a magic trick.

‘Failure to see’ can have disastrous consequences.  A driver, distracted by a splash of mud on his windshield can temporarily miss an unexpected object — like a freight train — directly in front of him.

Our ears can impact what we see

Some magicians use audio off-beats to trick us into thinking an object has disappeared or appeared.

Psychological studies have confirmed that people are slower and less accurate in detecting visual stimuli when they happen away from the established rhythm.

The Science of Magic
Top Canadian Magicians and the Tricks that Made Them Famous
More Trickery From The Magicians Featured in The Science of Magic

“What is new about this is that it’s happening across the sensory system, the mere presence of an auditory rhythm influences visual awareness. And that is almost unheard of,” says Anthony Barnhart, a magician and researcher who was featured in Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.

Inattentional blindness

When you’re engaged in an attentionally demanding task, you fail to see things that don’t fit your predictions or expectations of what will happen.

In the lab, 50% of people failed to see the moving coin. All of their attention was taken up by the task of figuring out what they should be looking at.  They missed the very thing they could have seen if they were focused appropriately.  Because they don’t expect to see the coin move across the table (in plain sight), they simply don’t see it.

Misdirection is an important tool in any magician’s arsenal.

Our intelligent brain

We’re learning that our brain filters sensory information through our assumptions and it makes a lot of guesses. Our perception is created through cognitive interpretation; our brain sorts through loads of data to interpret what’s happening around us all the time.

“We really have a much more intelligent brain than we thought, and what it does is it creates our reality,” says Ronald Rensink, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

But it is fallible; something that magicians know all too well.

To learn more watch The Science of Magic.


Available on CBC Gem

The Science of Magic

Nature of Things