Unveiling the magic behind the magic
A recent research on magicians reveals what we’ve known about them all along; they’ve managed to trick our brains by using sleight of hand – reaching for objects that aren’t there and pretending to drop others that they’ve really kept hold of. Using motion-tracking technology, researchers are now shedding light on how magicians have that added ability to do this, while we normal beings fail miserably.
In a research where magicians and controls were asked to grasp a wooden block with their vision obscured, magicians had the same “grip aperture” (how wide they opened their hands to grasp) and very little “grip overshoot” (adjustment of fingers when they actually grasped the object).
In other words, their motor system (picking up the object) was accurately getting its signal from elsewhere in the brain, in spite of their visual system (not being able to see the object) being obscured.
How do they develop this ability? Cavina-Pratesi’s team think it reflects a flexibility in the magicians’ occipito-parietal system (located towards the back of the brain). This flexibility seems to exploit the more primitive areas of the brain that are involved with spatially identifying targets. This could be somewhat similar to Patient TN, who challenged with blindsight, exhibited a weird ability to respond to visual information despite having no conscious knowledge of seeing anything.
On a related note, in their latest book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, Steve and Susanna unravel how magicians go about capturing people’s attention. All of it is neatly captured in this crisp video.
They explain fundamental concepts and how it gets used in magic, including…
Sensory afterimages: how magicians take advantage of our brain’s ability to adapt itself to sensory stimuli
Active misdirection: How magicians lead people’s limited attention spans by using top-down processes to manipulate it.
Humour: How magicians use humour to supress attention and affect cognition.