The Science of Magic

Posted on December 19, 2008


The latest edition of the New Scientist has an interesting article pointing to research into the cognitive basis of magicians methods for misleading people. In other words, into the quirks and limitations of human cognising that are revealed by our susceptibility to magic tricks.

The article is based around a couple of papers that have recently appeared. The first is “Attention and awareness in stage magic” by group of neuroscientists and magicians that includes Teller and James Randy:

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers’ deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory. Such methods could be exploited to directly study the behavioural and neural basis of consciousness itself, for instance through the use of brain imaging and other neural recording techniques.

The second article is entitled “Towards a science of magic”:

It is argued here that cognitive science currently neglects an important source of insight into the human mind: the effects created by magicians. Over the centuries, magicians have learned how to perform acts that are perceived as defying the laws of nature, and that induce a strong sense of wonder. This article argues that the time has come to examine the scientific bases behind such phenomena, and to create a science of magic linked to relevant areas of cognitive science. Concrete examples are taken from three areas of magic: the ability to control attention, to distort perception, and to influence choice. It is shown how such knowledge can help develop new tools and indicate new avenues of research into human perception and cognition.

I am yet to read either of the articles but it sounds like they are mostly arguing for a new methodology rather than examining significant new results. Having said that it does sound to me like a very interesting avenue to pursue. My enthusiasm for this approach should not be surprising given that my own concentration on superstitions is not that different both in focus and in aims.