Seeing is believing, right? Well it shouldn’t be, because we see with our eyes, and our eyes, as science continues to prove, are about as reliable as an inflatable dartboard. Indeed, the two squishy organic cameras and accompanying gray matter whose evidence we use to do pretty much everything are prone to all kinds of fallacies, shortcuts, mistakes, and even outright laziness. The downside to this is that you can never be sure what’s real and what’s a convenient lie fed to you by the sticky, semi-functional computer that actually makes all of the decisions in your life. On the upside, magic tricks! 

There’s a great article up on All About Psychology right now, talking about the many ways in which our brains can be tricked into seeing thing that aren’t there. The core argument being, of course, that our eyes are crap and our brains are lazy. To wit:

Processing large amounts of information is computationally expensive: if you want to process lots of visual information, you need large brains. But large brains come at a cost, since they require large heads and lots of food to support them. So instead of evolving into creatures with humongous brains, we developed extremely efficient strategies that allow us to prioritise aspects of the environment that are of importance, while ignoring things that are less relevant.

As we’ve discussed before, a great many magic tricks rely on the idiosyncrasies of human perception to achieve their effects. Some of these tricks exploit the rough-and-ready way our brains process information. Our brains seem to prefer translating visual information into a rough and ready 3D map over providing an accurate view of the world. That’s why illusions like the one below don’t just look weird, they interfere with our balance in a much more fundamental way.  

Our eyes are even worse, rather than truly follow an object in motion, they’ll let the brain make a quick estimation of direction and velocity, then call it a day, only really registering the object again if it changes direction or speed. Our brains are so good at truncating this information, it’ll sometimes fill in the blanks for us. If we’ve seen a ball thrown once and are then shown the motion again, more than 50% of us will actually “see” the ball in flight, even though it hasn’t been thrown. Ergo: magic. 

The article also has some interesting titbits of info about how our brains measure time (spoiler: they’re bad at it) and how we’re all constantly trying to see the future (again, bad). It’s a very interesting piece. 

“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.