The Magic Trick Lies in the Eye of the Beholder

(May 23rd, 2016) How do magicians deceive their audience? It’s all a matter of manipulating our attention, say two neuroscientists from the UK and Japan.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show of Gradstudent the Great! During the next minutes, I will misdirect your attention using verbal suggestions and disrupt your problem-solving skills. I will use my bodily movements to convince you that nothing important is happening on the stage. My narrative will be so entraining that you will hardly notice how I repress your externally-focused neuronal connections, and then get a rabbit out of my hat.”

As you know, magicians aren’t allowed to reveal their magical secrets but psychologist/neuroscientist Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire) and Tamami Nakano (Osaka University) don’t have to adhere to that ethical code. In a recent paper, they uncloak the features of a magic trick that hijacks our brains, also suggesting that magicians directly manipulate our attention.

To test that, in the words of the authors, one needs “an ongoing, continuous, unobtrusive and real-time measure of the degree to which an individual is attending to their surroundings”. Measuring attention could be done by having the test subjects inside NMR scanners and seeing directly how their brains light up. But just imagine how distracting it is to lie inside an NMR scanner! There is another way to quantify our attention: blinking.

We do it as much as 10% of our time, interrupting our visual cognitive skills and downregulating our visual cortex as much as 50 milliseconds prior to blink initiation. We avoid blinking when performing tasks that require acute visual processing. We also use blinks at the end of sentences or ideas in our conversations, just like we use punctuation marks in writing. For Wiseman and Nakano, it was very suspicious that blinking seems to be synchronised under some conditions. During movies, for instance, blinking increases in long shots or when the main characters are not in the scene. In the world of magic, however, nobody has shown whether blinking is directly manipulated.

The first part of a magic trick is to perform a secret action, which is called the ‘method’. The second part is the ‘effect’, in which the magician conveys the impression of having achieved a seemingly impossible act. The essence of a magic trick is to distract the attention of the public during the method and then, to fully concentrate their amazement in the effect.

Since we cannot study magic tricks with lab rats, among other things due to the shortage of rat magicians, the authors used the human American magician “Teller” and his performance of a trick called “Miser’s Dream”. In this act, the magician materialises silver coins out of thin air and also from the clothes of a volunteer that holds a glass jar. The coins are deposited in the jar and then poured into a water tank to finally be transformed into goldfish. The trick contains seven secret methods and six effects, takes a bit more than 124 seconds and is performed silently.

Wiseman and Nakano asked the test subjects to watch the video of the trick without knowing that their blinking was being recorded. After analysing the distribution of blink onset asynchrony, the authors revealed that most of the test subjects blinked precisely when the magician performed the secret methods, in a synchronised manner. The blinking was less likely to happen during the effect, once the magic trick was done and the wow!-feeling kicked in.

This information implies that there are mechanisms in a magic trick, to precisely control the timing of our blinking. More research on this topic could lead us to understand how our attention may be hijacked and synchronised for our own needs or amazement. If I knew how, I could apply this skill, for instance, during the presentations for my thesis advisor committee.


Photo: tookapic/Piotr Lohunko

Last Changes: 07.07.2016