The Neuroscience of Magic

Despite having a background in science, I am remarkably susceptible to magic tricks: there's something about them that draws me in. But there's more to it than me being stupid, as this video about the neuroscience of magic explains.


Turns out, as Luigi Anzivino describes, our brains just aren't cut out for following both a method and effect simultaneously. Each time we swap attention from one to the other—from working out how a magician is doing something to what we're actually seeing happen—our ability to work out what's going on decreases. As he puts it:

"As far as the brain is concerned, there is no such thing as multi-tasking"

Proof, if it were needed, that I'm not that gullible after all. The moral of the story—or at least, the moral I'm taking away—is that it's better to let magic wash over me without analyzing it. That way, it's more fun. [IFTF via Boing Boing]

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"our brains just aren't cut out for following both a method and effect simultaneously"

I disagree that this is a limitation of the brain. My grandpa's a magician, so I've seen all of the tricks since I was born and unless the trick is extremely, extremely well thought-out, I can usually follow the method, or at least know the method by the end of the trick. I can't help but automatically analyze it. But it's not about the brain's ability to multitask. Once you know how something is done, there's no more mystery. A magic trick works because the viewer doesn't know how the trick is done, and most people don't even know where to begin to break down the method.

Now, knowing how something is done doesn't always ruin the effect, it still comes down to presentation. I've seen acts that are flawless, to the point that even when I know the method, I can still appreciate the effect. I've also seen just the opposite, where you see through the cracks of the illusion, even though most people wouldn't notice.

Anyhow, the main point is that the brain can follow both the method and the effect, it's just that you're not going to appreciate the fact, as much, once you know the method.