“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.   

It seems like the deck was stacked against the magical acts in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent competition. Several of them encountered unfortunate technical errors, and those who didn’t were stymied by by unappreciative judges and apathetic viewers at home. Hilarious magic veteran Mandy Muden faced both. 

In the opening moments of her semi-final performance, a body double she was using in one of her tricks got stuck after (deliberately) falling off the stage and was caught by a behind-the-scenes camera while exiting the stage. I presumed the gaffe was part of her act, but the footage has been removed for the official YouTube video of her performance.

Even if it was on purpose, the British press has been particularly enthusiastic about “EXPOSING” the secrets behind the secrets behind the tricks in this year’s competition. Nearly every performance has been followed by tabloid hacks and gormless Twitter gremlins pontificating loudly that they know how a trick was done. I don’t think the jokey artifice did Muden any favors when it came down to the votes. Neither did the show’s audio set up. Muden later had her mic cut during another trick. She handled the interruption like a pro and proceeded to put on another great performance. 

Sadly, it wasn’t enough. She was eliminated from the competition on Friday, leaving the BGT finals without any magical talent whatsoever.  

The eventual winner was comedian Lee Ridley, better known as Lost Voice Guy. 

To add insult to injury, Muden then had her flight cancelled on the way home from the competition.