From mind tricks to magic tricks: the neuroscience behind good magic

June 8, 2018

“Nowadays, magicians work with engineers and physicians but their best scientific friends are cognitive neuroscientists,” writes neuroscientist, amateur magician, and, DJ (no really), Professor Olivier Oullier. “Because the magic recipe requires four ingredients: misdirection, attention, memory, and our inability to process all incoming data.”  

Earlier in the week, the professor delivered a keynote speech on “attention dynamics,” at a tech conference in Europe. The talk isn’t available just yet, but he went on to pen a surprisingly accessible summary of his points for an op-ed in The National. 

While the title might be a bit hyperbolic – I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that mechanical skill plays less of a role in magic than neuroscience and psychology – the piece does provide a scientific rationale for techniques that a lot of magicians rely on. 

Example: When a magician throws something up and down before he makes it vanish? He’s creating a casual association between the movement of his hand and the ball flying into the air. When he performs the sleight and doesn’t throw the ball, your brain tries to fill in the blanks and assumes the ball has vanished. That’s why good magicians keep their hands moving and why bad magicians wave coins in your face like they’re teasing a dog with a treat. They’re building a causal relationship.

Another trick, one that seems obvious now it’s been pointed out to me, is that magicians often suggest they’re going to do one thing before doing another. Our brains are prone to latching onto the first idea presented to us and excluding others, a phenomena called Einstellung. So when a magician says he’s going to hide something in his pocket, our attention naturally focuses on the pocket, even if we’re aware it’s likely a red herring. This is the same principle that lets you remember where you’ve put something the moment you stop thinking about it, and the reason why I have all my best ideas on the toilet.

The piece is fascinating, if a bit brief. Give it a read here.