Lisa: You don’t really see with your eyes, you see with your brain. Magicians have known this for centuries, and now the likes of Penn and Teller have hooked up with Neuroscientists to give some tips as to how magic tricks can help unravel the mysteries of cognition. The article is available for free at Nature.
Cognitive illusions are used in magic tricks all the time, which take advantage of inattentional blindness or change blindness. If you have never heard of change blindness, check out Richard Wisemans colour changing card trick. Inattentional blindness occurs when people just fail to see objects that are clearly in view. The most (unbelievable but true) example of this was famously characterised in a 1999 paper, where researchers asked a people to watch a group of basketballers passing a ball. The people were told to count the number of passes during a fixed time period. Half-way through, a person dressed in a Gorilla suit walked through the basketballers, stopped and beat it’s chest, and walked off. Amazingly, half the people failed to see the Gorilla, as their attention was on counting the passes. By tracking their eye movements the researchers showed that some people failed to see the Gorilla even when their eyes were looking at it (if you’re interested in finding this, the paper is charmingly entitled Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception 28, 1059–1074)
It never ceases to amaze me how much you’re brain just makes up so much of what you perceive as your visual surroundings. Whilst this article doesn’t really uncover too many secrets to magic tricks, it does suggest a new partnership between magicians and neuroscientists. I’d like to be at the conferences anyway!