Magicians often rely on misdirection — getting the audience to look to the
wrong place while the performer pockets the dove or switches a live fish for a
fake. By carefully controlling the audience’s gaze and using gestures to draw
focus away from the trick, a magician can
force spectators to look away, too.
Macknik explains a classic trick called
the French Drop to illustrate this point.
A magician holds a coin in the left hand
and pretends to pass the coin to the right
hand, which remains empty. “What’s
critical is that the magician looks at the
empty hand. He pays riveted attention
to the hand that is empty,” Macknik says.
The audience takes its cue from the magician and focuses attention on the right
hand, believing it to hold the coin.
Controlling where spectators move
their eyes takes skill. Perhaps more
impressive, though, is controlling
spectators’ minds. Several experiments
have now shown that people can stare
directly at something and not see it.
For a study published in Current Biology in 2006, Kuhn and his colleagues
tracked where people gazed as they
watched a magician throw a ball into the
air several times. On the last throw, the
magician only pretended to toss the ball.
Still, spectators claimed to have seen the
ball launch and then miraculously dis-
appear in midair. But here’s the trick: In
most cases, subjects kept their eyes on
the magician’s face or on the ball, which
never left his hand. Only when the ball
was actually at the top part of the screen
did participants look there. Yet the brain
perceived the ball in the air, overriding
the actual visual information: The brains,
not the eyes, were fooled.
Understanding how magicians carry
off tricks by manipulating perception
begs the question of whether their success depends on some people being
less perceptive. (And, alternatively, of
whether there really are tough crowds.)
Researchers trying to answer that question get only one shot: Once the ball in
the magician’s hand is pointed out, it’s
impossible to miss. “The tough part
with studying inattentional blindness,
and with magic, is that you can only do it
once,” says Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Simons and his colleagues found a
way around this problem by first measuring how perceptive people are. Then
the team asked whether more perceptive
people succumb less easily to inattentional blindness, which is when a person
doesn’t perceive something because the
mind, not the eyes, wanders. In a paper in
the April Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,
the researchers report that people who
are very good at paying attention had
no advantage in performing a visual
task that required noticing something
unexpected. Task difficulty was what
mattered. Few participants could spot
a more subtle change, while most could
spot an easy one. The results suggest that
magicians may be tapping in to some
universal property of the human brain.
“We’re good at focusing attention,”
says Simons. “It’s what the visual system
was built to do.” Inattentional blindness,
he says, is a by-product, a necessary consequence, of our visual system allowing
us to focus intently on a scene.
Magicians have perfected their tricks
over the millennia. So the techniques
magicians use on stage, says Macknik, are
“exceptionally robust,” which, in neuro-
scientists’ lingo is very high praise for a
strong effect. “Cognitive neuroscience’s
experiments are really crappy compared
to magicians’,” he says. In his experience,
subjects often guess what the experiment
is about, which ruins the experiment.
There’s another reason the tricks up
magicians’ sleeves may prove more powerful than anything dreamed up in a lab.
Many classic visual attention experiments
completely ignore social context, something known to affect attention and perception and long exploited by magicians.
Martinez-Conde and Macknik plan to
study the effects of one aspect of social
context — laughter — on attention. Magicians like Mac King have the audience
in stitches throughout a performance.
Martinez-Conde says one of her collaborators, magician John Thompson, told
her that when the audience is laughing,
time stops, giving the magician a golden
opportunity to act unnoticed.
Understanding how emotional states
can affect perception and attention may
lead to more effective ways to treat people who have attention problems.
“Scientifically, that can tell us a lot
about the interaction between emotion
and attention, of both the normally functioning brain and what happens in a diseased state,” says Martinez-Conde.
Channeling attention within different
settings — such as a hospital rehabilitation unit or a classroom of unruly fifth
graders —is one lofty aim of this new
marriage between magicians and neuroscientists. “Here we can take methods from magicians,” Macknik says, and
find new ways to treat people who have
brain trauma, Alzheimer’s disease and
“We don’t know how it’s going to work
because no one’s ever done it before.”
He expects that the study of consciousness and the mind will benefit enormously from teaming up with magicians.
“We’re just at the beginning,” Macknik
says. “It’s been very gratifying so far, but
it’s only going to get better.” s
s Visit Gustav Kuhn’s website: