The Frontal Cortex

A new paper in one of my favorite journals, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, tries to reverse-engineer the tricks of magicians to learn about the blind spots of the brain. Wired Science explains:

Magic tricks may look simple, but they exploit cognitive patterns that scientists are only beginning to understand. Now some psychologists are considering how they can use magic to advance our understanding of the brain — and perhaps help inoculate us against advertising.

“For most of the past century, [magic tricks have] been ignored, even though the effects are large, replicable, and experienced by just about everyone,” said University of British Columbia psychologist Ronald Rensink.

In a paper published yesterday in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Rensink and Durham University psychologist Gustav Kuhn argue that the collective wisdom of magicians, honed for millenia by the gazes of suspicious crowds, contains insights for investigators of human perception and cognition.

You can probably guess a few of the tricks, like physical misdirection (getting the audience to focus on the wrong part of the stage) and optical illusions (shifting perspective, playing with mirrors, etc.). But other aspects of magic are a little more subtle, such as when magicians take advantage of priming and the predictable foibles of the unconscious:

You pick a card at random, of your own free will. But how compromised is that will? Are the cards really shuffled? Is the deck stacked? Has one card been displayed a little longer than the others — not so long as you notice, but long enough that you instinctively pick it?

And, via Vaughan, comes this really interesting Ted talk:


  1. #1 Daniel
    July 24, 2008

    New book title: Houdini was a Neuroscientist.

  2. #2 Michael Woods
    July 25, 2008

    Why would psychs want to protect us from advertising? Its one of our major employment prospects… ;o)

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