Alakazam! The Neuroscience of Magic
Mar11

Alakazam! The Neuroscience of Magic

It’s not every day that you see a magician mentioned in the “Acknowledgements” section of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. But last month, when the open-access journal PeerJ launched, there it was: magical act Penn & Teller got a mention both in that section of the article AND in the title. In the paper, Stephen L. Macknick of Barrow Neurological Institute and two other researchers explore why Penn & Teller’s classic “cups and balls” magic trick works so well … by using some tricks of the cognitive-neuroscience trade. They monitored the eye movements of study participants who were watching Teller perform to understand the finer points of the illusion. Below, you’ll see an extended version of Penn & Teller performing the age-old trick, but you can also see the videos that accompanied the paper here. As I mention in this week's print Newscripts, Teller had assumed “cups and balls” fools the audience—even with transparent cups—because when he picks up a cup from the table, he tilts it and causes a ball sitting on top to fall. He thought audience members were distracted by the ball’s motion and therefore didn’t notice him sliding a new ball under the cup before placing it back on the table. Macknick and his team disproved this notion by demonstrating that viewers’ eyes didn’t stray very much from Teller’s hands when he dumped the ball. Only when he held one of the balls up or placed it on the table did he misdirect a subject’s gaze significantly. Some Newscripts readers might at this point be scratching their heads and asking why cognitive neuroscientists are helping magicians work on their acts. Well, Macknick told me that back in 2007, neuroscientists (a subset of them who study human consciousness) held a conference in Las Vegas. During the planning phase of the meeting, they were trying to figure out ways of drawing the public and press in, so they decided to feature magicians. After all, Macknick tells me, the tricksters are everywhere in Sin City: on the sides of buses and plastered on giant billboards. “We realized that magicians are artists of attention and awareness,” he explains. “Not only that, but they’re also better at those things than scientists.” After the success of the conference, cognitive neuroscientists began teaming up with magicians to test theories about why illusions fool the human brain. “There are now a dozen or two labs studying magic across the world,” Macknick says. But, he adds, the magicians are putting in a lot of time and effort, “so they want science to contribute back to magic, too.” That’s why Macknick’s team investigated “cups and balls.”...

Read More