Magicians Are The Performance Artists Of Attention And Awareness

An interesting article on some collaboration between science and magicians. Scientists are interested in some of the tricks that magicians use to change the focus of our awareness. Magicians, for their part, are interested in improving their craft.

One of the best tricks is misdirection: getting you to focus on the wrongs things. Hi-jacking your brain seems pretty easy, humorous patter works as does creating an internal dialogue by giving you a question to answer.

Scientists are now working with sleight-of-hand artists, but why?

Their tricks, honed through the decades, have revealed that people respond to certain situations in specific ways. Like detectives looking for new leads to solve a mystery, scientists can mine magicians’ knowledge for ideas to test in the lab. And for the magicians, understanding principles about the brain—that is, why a trick works the way it does—can suggest new ways to advance their art as they develop new tricks or improve existing ones.

Magicians are the performance artists of attention and awareness

Our internally produced picture of reality is subjective—and subject to influence. “Magicians are the performance artists of attention and awareness,” Macknick said. They use a number of techniques, including misdirection, to manage attention. They also take advantage of the brain’s fallibility, including its inability to notice small alterations in a scene (“change blindness”), the multiple ways humans communicate, and more. Ultimately, says Macknik, “Magicians use the spotlight of attention to perform a kind of mental jujitsu.”

One common tactic – stories

Narrative, which engages processing power in the brain by creating an interesting plot that the listener then follows, was effectively employed by attendee magicians such as American magician and debunker extraordinaire James “the Amazing” Randi and Spanish magician Kiko Pastur. Both demonstrated how they make heavy use of a storyline to misdirect, with delightful effect.

As he makes jokes with audience members, Robbins’ questions are also intended to create internal dialogue that eats up some of the brain’s bandwidth. He said he tries to engage what he calls the brain’s “two security guards.” The idea is to get the two talking to each other about what to watch out for, making thievery easier to conduct while the metaphorical guards are distracted. “We have only so many mental dollars that we get to spend,” he added. Once they’re consumed, the victim has no more left to focus on what is really happening. Presto! The wallet is gone.

Magician's are masters of exploiting built-in assumptions

A magician’s knowledge about built-in assumptions and tendencies can be our undoing. Population stereotypes—patterns of behavior—come into play in the mentalist tricks used by Do. “We suffer a lot from our own cognitive biases,” she said. She did a trick with attendees that showed how easy it was, by constraining choices in specific ways, to steer the audience to certain choices and create the effect that she read their minds. (Yes, I fell for that, too.)

Still curious? Read our post on How Magicians Manipulate The Human Mind and order Sleights of Mind.