It’s An Illusion, Michael

Have you ever found magic hard to wrap your head around? Well, you’re not the only one. If you think about it, magicians are nothing more than masters of misdirection. They exploit our limited perception by guiding our attention to one thing or another, using smoke, mirrors, attractive assistants, and what-have-you to perform an act that defies reason and logic. So how exactly are magicians taking advantage of perception and, more broadly, what can we learn about neuroscience, perception, and cognition from magic?

Fortunate for my curiosity, several neuroscientists and magicians have wondered the same. Although neuro-magic is not (yet) an official subcategory of psychology and neuroscience, scientists who are interested in perception and decision-making have looked to magicians to study basic questions about how magic fools the senses.

In a 2012 study, Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr. Stephan Macknik of the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center collaborated with magician Apollo Robbins to test a hypothesis that different types of hand movements result in different eye movements. The experiment was based on Robbins’ belief that moving his hand in a straight line to perform a trick would lead the audience to only focus on the beginning and end points of the motion; however, he figured that moving his hand in a curved line would lead the audience to follow his hand without interruption. By tracking eye movements during the respective hand motions, Martinex-Conde and Macknik confirmed Robbins’ theory: straight motion resulted in saccadic eye movements, where the eye jumps from point of interest to point of interest, whereas curved motion resulted in smooth pursuit eye movements. The finding is said to have implications about “predator-prey evasion techniques in the natural world, military tactics, sports strategies and marketing,” and generally adds to our understanding of visual perception (ScienceDaily).

Although it may seem trivial, a detail as small as the way a hand moves across space can affect how an eye tracts, and in effect, how much attention is paid to what is going on in the periphery of vision. As Benedict Carey of The New York Times reports, “The visual cortex resolves clearly only what is at the center of vision; the periphery is blurred…the brain focuses conscious attention on one thing at a time, at the expense of others, regardless of where the eyes are pointing.” Therefore, when engaged in a specific task, the brain does not necessarily consciously process actions that are seen by the eyes. So, the next time you see a magician prancing around, doing silly, fluid movements know that he or she is a closeted neuroscientist!

The findings from Martinez-Conde and Macknik are just the surface in the field of neuro-magic (–it’s going to be a thing!). It will be interesting to see where the study of magic from a neuroscience perspective will unveil in the future!

See Apollo Robbins in action:

And learn more about the neuroscience behind magic here:

Other Works Cited:


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