What can magic teach us about science?

Sleight of hand, stolen watches and disappearing coins might seem like parlor tricks - but they could show us more about our own brains than we ever thought.
Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor

Magicians often know things about human behavior before humans do. They understand how to fool us, which means they have to understand how we normally behave. To circumvent our logic, they have to know their way around it.

Take magician Apollo Robbins. He's got a theory about how to trick us that has to do with how he moves his hands. He thought that if he moved his hand in a straight line, the audience would focus on the beginning and end points of his movement, and not in between. But if he moved his hand in a curved motion, they'd follow the whole way along.

Robbins knows that his technique works (he's even stolen the watch of the editor in chief at Scientific American). But is his theory correct? Or is he really good at fooling us for some other reason?

Turns out he's totally right about how we watch him steal a watch. A study that tracked eye movement confirmed Robbin's hypothesis. The study was done by the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, and it is one of a few that they've done recently on magic and the human brain.

Another magician shed some light on using social cues to trick us. Mac King performed a coin-vanishing trick. You've probably seen it. The one where the magician tosses a coin up and down in his right hand before tossing it over to his left, at which point it disappears. Of course, the magician never tossed the coin into the opposite hand - they just pretended to.

At Barrow, they wanted to know whether seeing King's face had any effect on the outcome of the trick. Turns out it doesn't. "We wondered if the observer's perception of magic was going to be different if they could see the magician's head and eye position. To our surprise, it didn't matter," Martinez-Conde said in the press release. "This indicates that social misdirection in magic is more complicated than previously believed, and not necessary for the perception of all magic tricks."

By understanding how human gaze works, and how the brain processes what we see, magicians can trick us into all sorts of things. “Magicians use the spotlight of attention to perform a kind of mental jujitsu," Stephen Macknick, a researcher at the Barrow Institute, told Scientific American.

In a lot of ways, magicians are just like scientists, writes Scientific American. (Here, they're quoting Ava Do, a former neuroscientist turned magician).

Magicians, too, are “kind of like researchers in labs,” said Do. But they have a lot of confounds working with audiences—there’s no way for them to isolate all the factors and focus on testing one variable. By revealing why something works the way it does in the lab, scientists can help magicians improve their illusions.

Of course, this isn't just about making a few bucks as a street magician - or a few hundred stealing wallets. "Not only is this discovery important for magicians, but the knowledge that curved motion attracts attention differently from straight motion could have wide-reaching implications – for example, in predator-prey evasion techniques in the natural world, military tactics, sports strategies and marketing," Susana Martinez-Conde, one of the researchers, said in the press release.

Via: Eurekalert

Photo: jin.thai / Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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