Earlier this month, we touched upon the neurological of einstellung, or how our brains get stuck on the first bit of information they come across, and tend to cling to that information even in the face of contradictory evidence. Magicians with good patter often use this to their advantage by telling the audience a version of what’s about to happen that puts them in the right frame of mind for the trick to work.

So when Penn Jillette says he and Teller are going to make a chicken disappear, he’s already telling you a story, giving you an idea your brain’s going to struggle to shake, and setting you up for a mental pratfall. The trick works even if you’re conscious of the attempt at manipulation and misdirection. In fact, that kind of short-lived hyper-awareness makes you even easier to trick. Our mind narrows as we focus; by looking for the vanishing chicken, you’ll miss the second part of the trick entirely.

Performing magic essentially boils down to the control of information. What P&T demonstrate quite beautifully with this trick is that giving the audience information can be just as effective as withholding it.

There might be piles of op-eds bemoaning the dwindling attention spans of the digital age, but magicians know better. They know that humans’ ability to see and observe has always been a fragile thing, a thing that’s easy to manipulate or to fail completely. Magic historian David Britland delves into some of the more incredible examples of this phenomenon in his One Weird Trick blog.

For instance, he’s got the story of Harry Blackstone, a magician who was so good at misdirection he could distract an audience while a donkey was moved into position to be the trick’s big reveal. Nobody would see the donkey, even though the animal was in plain view on the stage, until Blackstone wanted them to.

On the more academic side, he also shares a research experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris of Harvard that put humans’ selective blindness to the test in a similar fashion. Instead of a donkey, the professors had people watch a group of people passing a ball so intently that many of the participants completely ignored the cameo by someone in a gorilla suit.

Check out the full post for more examples of selective inattention in action. Or if you still need more on the science of misdirection, you can read about it in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology or in The Guardian. Or just watch your favorite magician doing their thing.

Whether they realize it or not, most magicians are also cunning psychologists. A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology delved into just how powerful an audience’s expectations are in making your misdirection work.

The research led by Goldsmiths, University of London, ran tests based on the Theory of False Solution, where a magician intentionally presents viewers with a possible, but incorrect, answer to how their trick is done. Participants in the study were shown one of three variants of a card trick. Those who were not shown a false solution were more likely to sleuth out the real answer to the trick (87.5%) than those who saw a false solution, even after the performer proved to them that it was a false solution (60%). Co-author Dr. Gustav Khun had this to say about the results:

Our findings show that being exposed to a false solution can continue to prevent people from reasoning their way to the right answer even after they recognise this false solution is impossible. It’s as if, having made the effort to construct a solution, people become stuck on it and less able to ‘think outside the box’ and come up with a new solution that abandons their original assumptions.

Those are some impressive results. Perhaps it’s why the greats like Penn and Teller love to, ahem, “explain” their tricks, as with this nail gun piece:

Misdirection is a vital tool in the magician’s bag of tricks. By waving his hand over to the side, an illusionist can guide your attention away from the fact that he just put his shoe on the table until the last possible moment, all without you ever noticing. Dr. Daniel Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London, explains the science behind why this works in a brief Guardian article.

Our nervous system is really about filtering out rather than relaying information – if we were aware of all of our sensory inputs all the time, we would rapidly be overwhelmed. Attention is the way we direct the spotlight, ignoring the background and focusing on what matters.

Our visual cortex causes our brain to only focus on what we’re looking at. It’s this internal wiring that allows optical illusions to fool our brains, and it’s that same trickery that makes the act of causing cards (or shoes) appear out of thin air look like magic. The more you know. 

Virtual reality – where you strap on a headset and maybe a vest or some gloves – at first doesn’t seem like it has much in common with magic, but as Curtis Hickman of The Void explains, they both rely on misdirection. In a presentation at the Augmented World Expo, Hickman, who is himself a magician, described how effective virtual reality depends on tricking participants into believing in not just the fantastic, but more importantly the mundane.

To get the audience to buy into a magic trick, you must first establish certain ground rules of truth. This is a regular coin, you have selected a card of your own free will, this is a real bowling ball. The hurdle for convincing someone to believe a virtual reality experience is similar, and misdirection is key to selling the lie. Hickman’s example of creating an endless hallway by letting the player walk in circles is a perfect illustration of how, as he says, “virtual reality is the result of misdirection.” 

It’s a fascinating exploration of how willing our brains are to fill in the gaps of not only what’s not really there, but what’s not even possible.