This Is Your Brain on Magic

Psychologists and neuroscientists have an unlikely ally in their quest to understand human nature: professional magicians.

“I’m going to flip through here and I want you to glance at a card in the middle,” Jay Olson tells his volunteer, offering the deck of cards in his hands. “Not the bottom one—that’s kind of simple for me—but one in the middle. Okay?”

She okays. He flips; she glances.

Olson, a graduate student in psychiatry at McGill University, puts the cards back in their box and hands it to her. “So which one did you choose?” The 10 of hearts, she tells him. “The 10 of hearts,” he repeats. “Great. So now if you could just examine the outside of the box to make sure it’s normal”—she does—“and then take that box and just close it right inside your hands.”

He snaps his fingers over hers. “Now I want you to slowly open your hand and read the bar code”—and sure enough, there are the words, printed right on the box: the 10 of hearts. The volunteer hands the box back to Olson, giggling at the seeming impossibility of what just transpired, unaware that she didn’t really choose the 10 of hearts at all. Olson chose it for her, in a piece of trickery so quick and so subtle as to seem almost like magic.

The scene is part of a video released in tandem with Olson’s latest study, published earlier this week in the journal Cognition and Consciousness. Together with a team of researchers from McGill and the University of British Columbia, he demonstrated the effectiveness of a technique that magicians call forcing, or manipulating a person’s decisions without her knowledge.

In the first part of the study, Olson, a practicing magician, approached 118 people and asked them to randomly pick a card as he flipped through the deck, an act that took about a half-second in total. Each time, though, Olson already had a specific card in mind. As he flipped, he’d let his target card show just slightly longer than the rest. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the participants picked the one he had in mind, even as 91 percent said the choice had been entirely theirs—illustrating, the study authors wrote, that magic “can provide new methods to study the feeling of free will.”

But when I asked Olson about the method in question—how, exactly, did he maneuver the flip so that his card showed for just a fraction of a second longer?—he deflected. “I can’t share that,” he said. “It’s part of the secret.”

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Olson and his colleagues are part of a small but growing group of researchers investigating how tricks like this one can offer insight into how people think, perceive, and remember. In some ways, the pairing of science and magic doesn’t seem like much of a pairing at all: One field dedicated to uncovering the rules of the world, and another predicated on the (seeming) ability to break them; a discipline that tries to further understanding, and a performance art whose continued existence depends on secrecy.

In other ways, though, it makes a strange kind of sense. Magicians build their craft on the knowledge of how people act, psychologists dig into the why, and this new area of study that some have dubbed “neuromagic” tries to fill in the space in between. A recent special issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology titled “The Psychology of Magic, the Magic of Psychology” (Olson was a co-editor) included a study on insight and problem-solving that had subjects watch the same trick over and over until they cracked it, one that used data from eye-tracking movements of audience members to examine attention, and one that used fMRI scans to see what happens in the brain when people witness a seemingly supernatural event.

“The actual link between science and magic is quite intuitive, but it’s actually difficult to draw direct links between the two fields, and one reason is that magicians and scientists generally use quite different language to describe the same principles,” said Gustav Kuhn, a professor of psychology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, a practicing magician, and another co-author of the Frontiers magic issue.

For example, forcing, the technique examined in Olson’s card study, can take two very different paths towards a similar end. Physical forcing, which Olson used, is when one object is made to somehow stand out over the others that surround it. Psychological forcing, by contrast, is “when you try to make an option more salient in somebody’s mind,” Olson explained. “Say that I ask you to think of a card. Based on the wording of that, I can influence you to choose particular cards.” (In a previous study, he and he colleagues examined the factors that made certain cards more memorable or more visible than others. When the researchers asked subjects to name a card, for example, 40 percent of people would choose either the ace of spades or the queen of hearts, information the team later publicized in the magicians’ magazine Genii.) Both types serve the same purpose—the subject makes what they think is a choice—but one is a matter of perception, the other a more complicated mix of memory, association, and social interaction.

Two other major tenets of magic tricks, illusion and misdirection, present the same sort of challenge. “When [magicians] use misdirection to prevent you from being aware of something, the mechanism by which this happens is sort of irrelevant, really—they just need to have a mechanism that works really well,” Kuhn told me. “But you can fail to notice something because, for example, you fail to encode the information, or because you encode the information and afterwards you forget about it. These are two very different processes in perception and memory, and as scientists, for us, it’s very important to distinguish between the two.”

But if some elements of magic can be translated into patterns and then into science, others are less easily measured, though still easily observed. A trick is not a lab experiment; it’s an inherently social act, one that gets its life from the dynamic between magician and audience. In the second part of Olson’s Cognition and Consciousness study, the researchers tried the same type of physical forcing on a computer, asking volunteers to name a card after seeing several flash by, one staying on the screen imperceptibly longer than the others. The subjects picked the target card 30 percent of the time—still a significant number, but one dramatically smaller than when Olson had been flipping the deck.

“When you give them a choice of card, you want them to make a quick choice and not linger or say, ‘Oh, can I change my card?’ So if a participant is uncomfortable, it’s more likely that they’re going to comply,” Olson explained. But in front of a computer, that discomfort disappears, and with it the tendency to unwittingly succumb to the influence of forcing.

The study of magic, then, is the study of people and groups as much as it is of the senses and the firings of the brain; a magician looks at the whole as much as its parts. “A lot of the demonstrations that I do, when I get inside people’s minds, is understanding human behavior and understanding how people think and getting their patterns down,” famed illusionist Criss Angel told Parade magazine in 2007. “Many people say I’m really a student of humanity.”

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In 1900, Norman Triplett, a professor at Indiana University, published an article in the American Journal of Social Psychology titled “The Psychology of Conjuring Deceptions.”

“In the large body of existing conjuring tricks is found much material of value to the psychologist,” he wrote, offering a list that, if not completely comprehensive, must have come close. Over the dozens of pages that followed, he proceeded to group every single act of magic that he knew into categories like “tricks involving scientific principles,” “tricks involving unusual ability, superior information, etc.,” and “tricks depending on a large use of fixed mental habits in the audience.”

Over the next few decades, though, psychologists’ interest in magic petered out, said Ronald Rensink, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia whose research on vision has included studies on the illusions used in magic tricks. No one really knows why, he told me, but some argue that it has to do with the rise of behaviorism in the early 20th century. “They were trying to break everything down into simple bits and pieces.” he said. “There’s a bell and you expect meat. Simple associations, simple stimuli, and magic did not fit in to that.”

Another reason, he offered, is that much of magic’s usefulness to science comes from its status as a setup for measurements like eye tracking and fMRI scanning, things that weren’t possible in Triplett’s day. “Keep in mind, they didn’t have the technologies they do today, so they could only go so far.”

Regardless of the cause, magic stayed largely out of the scientific spotlight until 2007, when it became a temporary star. Neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, whose work focused on visual illusions in art, had been appointed a co-chair of the annual meeting for the American Society for the Study of Consciousness, to be held in Las Vegas. She and her co-chair, neuroscientist Steve Macknik, wanted to build the conference around a theme that would pique the interest of those outside the field, she told me. “We were thinking maybe something to do with art.” But on a trip out to Las Vegas to plan the logistics of the weekend, she said, “we’re driving up and down the Strip and we see all of these signs, massive signs of magicians—Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, you name it—and then we realized, just as painters and visual artists have developed all these perceptual illusions, magicians are the cognitive artists.”

The pair asked a group of Las Vegas magicians to come speak at the conference, she said, about “why a specific magic trick of their choice works in the mind of the spectator.” Five of them, including the famously silent Teller of Penn and Teller, accepted the invitation, later collaborating with Martinez-Conde and Macknik on a paper in the journal Nature outlining the scientific lessons to be drawn from various tricks. In a rare moment of transparency, the magicians explained their secrets to the audience at the meeting (the videos are available online)—though after describing Teller’s feat of making coins seemingly materialize in the air, Martinez-Conde, like Olson, declined to explain the mechanics behind the trick. “We’ve gotten in trouble before,” she told me; after the ASSC meeting, she and Macknik joined a handful of magicians’ societies, which require members not to divulge the secrets of the trade.

But those who study magic as a science rather than an art maintain that a knowledge of the nitty-gritty isn’t necessary—magic, though an exclusive circle in some ways, also feeds on the most universal of inclinations.

“We want to explain at a fundamental level why you are so thoroughly vulnerable to sleights of mind,” Martinez-Conde and Macknik wrote in their book Sleights of Mind. “We want you to see how deception is part and parcel of being human. That we deceive each other all the time.”