How do magicians play with our mind?

the involuntary blindnessIn other words, “ not detecting an unexpected stimulus that is in our field of vision while performing other tasks that occupy our attention ” is one of the strategies that magicians and illusionists practice. for decades to trick our brains. This phenomenon, called involuntary blindness, is classified as an “ error of attention ” and it has nothing to do with a visual deficit. In fact, it is a strategy of our mind to try to reduce the stimulus overload that we are constantly exposed to.

However, this trick is not the only one used by magicians to confuse people.

Among the studies carried out in the field of neuroscience, there is a very interesting article in which two researchers, Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martínez Conde proposed find the mechanisms that occur so that our brains are unable to perceive the tricks that magicians use in their performances. To do this, they had the collaboration of real professional magicians like Penn and Teller (see the article here).

Tricks and stratagems most used by magicians

These authors claim that among the various ploys that illusionists use to deceive us, there are:

1) Optical illusions and other sensory illusions, which are phenomena in which the subjective perception of a fact does not agree with the physical reality of it.

A very plastic example that illustrates this is the trick of folding spoons. In this issue, the magician bends the spoon so that its handle is flexible.

The fact that we perceive this visual illusion is because neurons in the visual cortex that are sensitive to both movement and line terminations respond to oscillations differently than other visual neurons.. The result is an apparent gap between the endings of a stimulus and its center; a solid object seems to flex in the middle. This “neural desynchronization” is what makes us feel like we are doubling the spoon.

Another variation of this trick is to use two previously bent spoons in a moment of distraction from the spectators. The magician holds them between his thumb and forefinger so that they are joined by the folded part of the two. It looks like he’s holding two unfolded and crossed spoons at the neck of the handle. When you start to shake them, it gives the impression that the spoons are softening and bending around your neck. This optical phenomenon, also known as law of good continuity, This makes us see the spoons as if they are crossed when the magician is holding them, despite the fact that they are already bent.

2) Cognitive illusions such as blindness on change in which the viewer is not able to perceive that there is something different from what was before. Change can be expected or not, and it can be sudden or gradual, whether or not there are interruptions.

Among the cognitive illusions, there is also the involuntary or inattentive blindness, which we have already discussed above.

Here are some videos that illustrate this fact:

Is he fooling the eye or the brain?

One question that arises as to how magicians manage to sneak their tricks on us is whether it’s because they distract our gaze from the moment they perform the trick or, in fact, what they are manipulating, it is our attention. Kuhn and Tatler (2005) they carried out an experiment consisting in controlling the movements of the eyes of the spectators in front of a simple trick which consisted in making disappear a cigarette (the magician threw it under the table) and what they saw is that the spectator was looking at everything the instant the cigarette but still not seen the trick. The conclusions of the study were that what the magician was actually doing was manipulating the viewer’s attention rather than their gaze, using the same principles used to produce unintentional blindness.

How does our brain approach “the impossible”?

In a 2006 study by Kuhn and other cognitive neuroscientists, experimental subjects were asked to watch videos of magic tricks that appeared to exhibit impossible causal relationships, like making a bullet disappear. At the same time, functional MRI images of his brain were taken. A control group watched very similar videos, but without including any magic tricks.

Results shown increased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex between subjects who observed magic tricks and between witnesses.

The finding suggests that this brain area may be important for interpreting causal relationships.

This work by Kuhn and his colleagues only hints at the extent to which magic techniques might be manipulated by individuals’ attention and ability to become aware of what is going on, while waiting to investigate the physiology of their brains.

Bibliographical references:

  • Kuhn, G. and Tatler, BW (2005). Magic and fixation: now you don’t see it, now you see it. Perception 34, 1155–1161
  • Macknik, SL, Martínez-Conde, S. (2013). Deceptions of the mind: how magic tricks reveal how the brain works. Barcelona: Destination.
  • Stephen L. Macknik, Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson, and Susana Martinez-Conde. (2008). Attention and awareness in the magic of the stage: transforming tips into research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. doi: 10.1038 / nrn2473

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