The Science Behind Magicians' Fooling You

At some point in our childhood, we’ve all been fascinated with magic tricks. Disappearing and appearing rabbits, things that float, people getting cut in half and card tricks, it’s all something that amazed us. Of course, as we grew older, we’ve come to learn that these magic tricks are more tricks than actual magic but still get amused all the same.

In fact, according to a new paper published in the journal Pyschological Science, your brain will choose to ignore the sleight of hand in a magic trick even when you don’t try to. Furthermore, it’s meant to do that, because of science.

Just imagine for one second a magician waving a card back and forth in front of you then all of a sudden it becomes a different card. By now, you know that it didn’t really happen and that the magician simply changed the card he’s holding, or flipped it around. But your eyes and brain still manage to fool you. This is because the rather small motion of changing the card with another is largely hidden by the bigger motion of a hand waving a card back and forth. Your eyes are trained to look for the “trick,” yet all it follows is the hand going back and forth. This phenomenon is called change blindness, which is a widely used visual trick that refers to your eyes not noticing the abrupt change in what you’re seeing.

According to Katherine Wood, an author of the recent study and PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Illinois, the change in direction is all the misdirection illusionists need to fool your brain.

“The illusion that we’re always seeing everything all the time is such a powerful part of who we are. Our brains are remarkably adept at filling in the background,” says Stephen Goldinger, a psychologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study. 

Coincidentally, this also means that magicians themselves already have a “head start” on psychologists when it comes to knowing how the brain functions in a specific scenario.

So the next time someone performs a magic trick for you, quit overthinking. It may not be really magic, but it’s still an entertaining show nonetheless.

ace-1869825_960_720 (1) Card tricks are one of the most popular illusions that magicians do. Photo by Pixabay (CC0)