Scientists prove how magic tricks hijack your mind

The possibilities of the impossible
The possibilities of the impossible
Image: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo
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Now you see it. Abracadabra! And now you don’t. Or do you?

A team of scientists, primarily based out of the University of Oxford, are currently undertaking serious experimentation with magic. Their latest study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, investigated whether a magician really could cheat us into believing we are saw an object that wasn’t actually there.

Magicians dazzle their audiences in numerous ways, but their repertoire is usually based on tricking our senses, distracting our attention and subtly persuading our mind.

To test how magic tricks can manipulate perception, the team had 420 participants watch a series of five silent videos of a magician performing tricks with different objects. After each trick, the viewers were asked to write down what they saw and rate how surprising, impossible and magical the trick seemed. Using silent videos, the researchers thought, would rule out the influence of distracting talk or leading questions which usually garnish magic shows.

The first four videos showed the magician performing tricks with small props — levitating poker chips, vanishing crayons and making small balls appearing from nowhere. The fifth video showed The Phantom Vanish Magic Trick, where the magician mimed making an object disappear.

This trick might seem pointless at first, but 32% of the participants fell for it, reporting seeing the non-existing object vanishing in front their eyes.

Psychologists have proposed that our perception is formed by combining two approaches. One is “bottom-up processing,” which involves a direct, sensory flow of information. Basically what you see is what you get. The other is “top-down processing,” which states that our perception is influenced by previous knowledge, expectations and existing beliefs. Think about how you can see a common sign, like N_  SM_KING, and even if it’s missing letters, you can read it. Whenever we see, hear, taste, smell or touch something, our brain combines the sensory information (bottom-up processing) and any previous knowledge it has (top-down processing) to perceive a new information. Here, the question is at what extent our mind relies on one or the other processing when magic happens.

Magic tricks, the researchers show, seems to hijack your brain’s top-down processing. The first four videos, it seemed, could tune participants to see a pattern — real objects vanishing over and over. And after seeing something happening repeatedly, some participants watching The Phantom Vanish Magic Trick believed something “ought to be there“ in even though their eyes couldn’t confirm it.