Brain magic – what magicians are teaching scientists

15-February-2019 0:00
in General
by Legerdemain Magic

Magicians are teaching scientists valuable lessons on how the brain works and the nature of human perception. Brain magic is the study of why magic tricks fool us. It looks beyond the typical question magicians are asked of ‘how did you do that?’, and looks at the far more important question of ‘why are you able to do that?’ The lessons it teaches us can be applied to many aspects of our lives, such as our relationships and work, and can help us to better understand ourselves.

Magicians use a variety of methods to trick people’s brains. One of the fundamental reasons that it is possible to fool people with magic is that the brain doesn’t process every detail of what is going on, instead it takes a broad sweep of its environment. This is how we have been conditioned for survival. If, for example our brains were busy concentrating on the details of every leaf on every tree, we might not see a rapidly-approaching dinosaur/articulated lorry until it was too late.

Brain magic – breaking the assumptions of cause and effect

Our awareness of cause and effect means that we take much of what is going on around us for granted. For example, if we throw a ball in the air, we know it will come down again, and our brain therefore doesn’t follow the ball’s every moment. Rather, our brain sees snap shots of the ball in motion, and it then fills in the blanks itself, based on what it assumes will happen.

Magic works by altering the process of cause and effect. We are all accustomed to certain consequences following certain actions, and at those moments, our attention is relaxed, giving magicians the perfect opportunity to execute some legerdemain.

American magician Apollo Robbins has discovered that audience members direct their attention differently depending on the type of hand motion used. He found that if he moves his hand in a straight line while performing a trick, the audience focusses on the beginning and end points of the motion, but not in between (the brain fills in the blanks by making assumptions about what will happen). In contrast, he finds that if he moves his hand in a curved motion, the audience follows his hand’s trajectory from beginning to end.  This concept could be applied to a wide range of areas, from military tactics to sports strategies. (Read more about Apollo Robbins’ brain magic discoveries).

Magic has also been found to be very helpful when working with children with locomotor disabilities. By learning magic tricks, the children’s motor skills improved considerably.

Learning magic tricks can build people’s confidence.  A scientific study revealed that teaching children a magic trick had some dramatic psychological effects. The children became more sociable and confident. Unlike video games, magic encourages children to interact with their friends and family, and it requires discipline and an understanding of how people think.  Practising magic helps to devleop dexterity and co-ordination, and performing is an excellent way of developing confidence and presentational skills.

A book I would highly recommend on brain magic is 'Sleights of Mind: what the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions’. The book’s authors have interviewed some of the world’s best magicians and scientists and made some fascinating discoveries. By understanding how magic fools the brain, they then explain how these principles apply to many aspects of our lives, such as advertising strategy, business negotiations, and interpersonal relations.

Another excellent book is Experiencing the Impossible by Gustav Kuhn. Gustav is a leading psychologist and a skilled magician; in this book he reveals the intriguing and sometimes unsettling insights into the human mind that the scientific study of magic provides. 

If you would like to find out more about brain magic, I’d recommend the following:

What can magicians teach us about the brain?
Teller and the neuroscience of magic