Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Magic to Marvel At

The king of spades in your right hand and the 5 of clubs in your left; You have a good grasp on the two cards, especially because you’re in the presence of a magician. As you hold the two cards, you’re instructed to select a number that falls between a five and a king. The magician begins to tap your wrists against each other—once…twice…three times…and repeatedly until you begin to lose count. You shout your number, and the magician steadies your wrists long enough for you to realize that your cards mysteriously switched hands. To add salt to the wound, the magician then hands over your watch from his pocket.

This trick is one of the many conducted by illusionist David Blaine. If you’ve ever watched Blaine, David Copperfield or a really great children’s birthday party magician (they do exist) you may share my sentiments that their tricks can range from “neat” to confusing to mind-blowing to downright scary. Admittedly, I love the entertainment factor and marvel at magicians’ skills. But magic has always been just that—Entertainment. Skillful entertainment. Not many blogworthy lessons to be learned from a magic show…

Magically Manipulating the Mind

I recently caught up on my “to read” email folder, and came across an interesting piece titled “How Neuroscientists and Magicians Are Conjuring Brain Insights.” This article provided me new value and meaning for magicians. The author, Mariette DiChristina, sheds light on the fact that magicians are actually brain scientists in some regards, leveraging their understanding of the human mind to manipulate and misdirect how the brain processes information. Magicians understand and take advantage of the fact that our brains are bombarded with millions of data points in every moment, yet we are only able to consciously process about 7 thoughts at a time. By intentionally exceeding that limit of stimuli and focusing our attention elsewhere, magicians give themselves a window of opportunity to steal a watch, alter a card deck, or make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Stephan Macknik, an advisor for Scientific American Mind, likens magicians’ manipulation of our “spotlight of attention” to perform of what he calls “mental jujitsu.”

One of the forms of misdirection magicians utilize is distraction via the art of storytelling. Oftentimes, magicians will weave their tricks into stories, using narratives to engage and distract the brains’ of the audience, decreasing their bandwidth to process other data. Since humans are wired for deriving meaning through stories, we follow the magician’s words attentively, processing his story’s arc, and anticipating its conclusion. Our natural penchant for story gets our brains so caught up in following the narrative that we unintentionally lose focus of the reality in the moment, making us easy victims of the magician’s tricks.

Perception is Reality

As illusionists continue to develop and leverage this keen understanding of how the mind works in order to perfect their craft, it’s no surprise they’ve been tapped by scientists in a symbiotic quest to better understand brain function. Per DiChristina’s article, scientists are working with magicians to better understand the human perceptual process—basically how we experience data, sort through it, and make sense of it. By using magic tricks, researchers are able to observe perceptive abilities, and test them in a variety of ways. For example, if the story being told or question being asked during a trick is closely related to the trick itself, versus a completely unrelated subject, is perceptive accuracy greater? (The answer is “yes”). And magicians benefit from this research, too – as additional knowledge about how the brain works is uncovered, illusionists can use these insights to take their tricks to the next level…making me, in all honestly, a little nervous about the next generation of magic tricks.

So why all the fuss about understanding perception? As many a great marketer has said, “perception is reality” when it comes to consumers. And, perception is a key driver of all human behavior. So while a scientist and a magician in a lab might sound like the premise for a bad joke, it’s actually a fascinating step toward cracking the code behind the greatest mystery of all — the “why” of human behavior.

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