BRAIN ON MAGIC
Author: Ritika Rajkumar
Rabbits popping out of hats, smoke and mirrors — these are some of the images that come to mind when human beings think about magic. But what about the brain on magic? While neuroscientists are occupied with discovering the biology behind these processes, magicians are fascinated by controlling and exploiting them to create illusions.
Magic is an ancient art and professional magicians take their craft seriously, studying its vast literature and discovering new procedures and principles through fieldwork and research. The base of magic, understanding people — their experiences, awareness, and expectations — so that magicians can manipulate the audience’s assumptions with precision and skill.
Magicians use their skills to both distract and focus the audience’s attention. Small, subtle hand movements embedded into larger, more obtrusive actions play upon a person’s awareness during an illusion. Pattern recognition and eye movements can be used to the magician’s benefit, effectively allowing the performer to deceive and manipulate the audience by exploiting the brain’s natural processes. For instance, the cliché postulates that “the hand is quicker than the eye.”
Authentically it is not about speed, but rather a magician’s ability to control or misdirect the audience’s vision away from his hand movements. “Forcing” is used in some card tricks — the magician repeatedly shows a particular card to subliminally influence the audience’s selection. Magicians also manipulate audiences to accept deceitful information by providing assumptions, such as implying the card deck was shuffled by another person.
It’s very interesting how audience members of a magic show are readily deceived. There is an unspoken agreement between the magician and the audience that, during the show, the audience members will suspend their disbelief.
You know that magicians play mental games and that magic isn’t real[i], but you still enjoy the moment. That is just how it goes. Neurologists and psychologists find another use for this art of creating magical illusions. They study perception, attention, and memory, among other processes in other words; they study the brain’s limits.
Some scientists have begun to participate with magicians, thus joining these two traditional and seemingly opposing disciplines. We say seemingly opposing because, in reality, they aren’t so different. Magic and the brain are intimately linked. Magic is the illusion of perception and perception that occurs in the brain.
Scientists are struggling to understand the neuronal correlative of illusions[ii]. They’re also trying to understand the moments when objective and subjective reality does not coincide. That will allow them to clarify the operations and mechanisms the brain uses to construct experiences of reality.
Magic and the brain: creating an illusion:
Illusions exist; we see and enjoy them. But why do they exist? Basically, they exist because of the limitations of the human beings brain. After all, the brain isn’t infinite. Your brain can only reach a certain size because it has to fit inside your skull. It also has a limited number of neurons and neural pathways[iii]. That means that your perception, just like other psychological processes is limited.
When the brain interprets reality, it takes shortcuts. It creates simulations and masks authenticate. Most of the time, it is very good at this. However, sometimes, it creates something that doesn’t exist. That is when an illusion is born.
The brain isn’t capable of processing everything for various reasons. We start with two-dimensional images and mentally assemble three-dimensional ones. The brain does this by looking for the most likely solution, which might sometimes trigger illusions.
Besides that, the brain uses up a lot of energy[iv] and is fairly slow. Though it only takes up 3% of your body, it consistently consumes 30% of your total energy. To deal with this, the brain tries to predict what is going to happen based on what it knows about the past.
The invisible coin experiment:
Let us explain an experiment from magician Mac King. He throws a coin from his right hand to his left. Then, he opens the receiving hand, the left, and there is no coin there. Probably, it disappeared. The truth is that the coin did not leave his right hand, but the audience swears that they saw the coin fly through the air.
“Why does this happen?” First of all, the movement that the magician makes is identical to the movement he would have made if he had actually tossed the coin. Secondly, the neural mechanisms of implicit movement make you believe that you have seen the movement. It is like when you pretend to throw a dog a stick. The magicians fool your brain in the same way.
Magic tricks are very relevant to scientists and can reveal things about how the brain works. But what do magicians get out of this kind of collaboration? Well, it has helped them understand the value of magic tricks.
As we can see (and this isn’t an illusion), magicians help science and science help magicians. Our brains are imperfect. Thanks to that imperfection, you can see things that do not exist and not see things that do. The brain and the magic are intimately connected. Without the brain, magic could not exist.
[i]Love: The Magic Wand in Parenting, EXPORING YOUR MIND (Last Update: 28 February, 2018)https://exploringyourmind.com/love-magic-wand-parenting/ [ii]Louis Jolyon West, Illusion, BRITANNICA (Revised and Updated: March 16, 2007)https://www.britannica.com/topic/illusion [iii]Seven Ways to grow Neurons at any Age, EXPLORING YOUR MIND (Updated: April 7, 2020) https://exploringyourmind.com/seven-ways-grow-new-neurons-any-age/ [iv]What Happens to the Brain When YouExercise?EXPLORING YOUR MIND (Updated: January 18, 2020)https://exploringyourmind.com/what-happens-to-the-brain-when-you-exercise/