How Magicians Use Illusions To Fool Your Brain


Why is misdirection successful? Cognitive neuroscience may offer some insight. It turns out that the answer has to do with “change blindness” and “inattentional blindness.” Remember those newspaper trivia pages, the ones where you’re shown two almost identical images and you’re tasked with finding the difference? Of course, one glance is not enough to pinpoint the differences — that’s what change blindness is.

Inattentional blindness, on the other hand, is when you miss things that are predominantly present in a scene. Dr. Daniel J. Simons, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “These concepts illustrate how we are only aware of a subset of our visual world at any time. More importantly, they run counter to our intuitive belief that whenever something important happens right in front of us, it will automatically grab our attention. We feel that we are aware of our surroundings, but we are only aware of those parts of our world that fall into the focus of our attention. We don’t realize how much we’re missing.”

Simons’ famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment aptly illustrates the limits of awareness. Participants were shown a video of six people — three in white shirts and three in black — passing basketballs around. They had to keep count of the passes made by the people in white shirts. At one point, a woman dressed as a gorilla walked into the middle of action and thumped her chest. Half the participants in the study failed to notice.

Optical illusions are defined by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. Bluntly speaking, they embody aspects of visual and cognitive illusions.

Practical Implications

The science of magic has a lot to offer. Martinez-Conde believes that insights from the field can apply in many areas, including education. “Magicians have the capacity to control our attention. They’re controlling our attention very carefully and directing it to whatever they want us to be focusing on. If teachers could do the same thing — divert students’ focus to what matters — that would be great,” she notes.

The benefits could be channeled into the medical field as well. “In patients with cognitive decline and neurological trauma, rehab therapists have a tough time getting them to focus,” Macknik says. “Their rehab therapist needs them to focus their attention on the right thing at the right time. These patients could see a much stronger clinical benefit out of this research.”


He adds that magicians control our emotions in order to control our attention, such as by telling jokes. He contends that magicians don’t tell jokes just for the sake of entertainment. “They drop them at specific times; they are part of the trick. There is a strong connection between emotions and attention. We know fear controls attention. But scientists know little about how humor controls attention,” Macknik says. “This could potentially help us understand the underpinnings of a disease like Alzheimer’s that has a strong emotive component.” The duo is focusing on this branch of research.

The current research is expected to offer insight into perception and cognition. Dr. Ron Rensink, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of British Columbia who studies card tricks, says, “The science of magic is beginning to take on a definite form, with studies becoming more rigorous and connecting to what we know of human perception and cognition. There are several interesting directions emerging, including decision-making, the development of motor skills (magicians have highly practiced abilities), and studies into what does or does not create a sense of wonder (that is, which kinds of events seem ‘magical’ and which do not).”

When it comes to the science of magic, there is just so much more than meets the eye!

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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