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.