The Magic of Research

As the cynical and jaded second years that we are, exhausted after two years full of research methods and statistics, we might laugh scornfully at someone who tried to tell us that psychology research can be magical. But guess what! It can be!

Sadly I don’t mean magic in the Harry Potter sense (though I do think Freud would have had a field day with Lord Voldemort; and probably the whole wand thing too…), but it is true that psychologists are using magic in their research. The tricks of stage magic are being used to investigate complex phenomena such as attention and perception. A good magician will be able to fool our senses by tricking some mechanism of cognition or attention; so by studying how these tricks work on our minds we could significantly further our understanding of human cognitive and perceptual functioning.

Some tricks of stage/performance magic use visual illusions to trick the audience; taking advantage of the way human visual perception works in order to make an elephant vanish etc. These types of tricks usually work by taking advantage of the laws of visual perception, which have already been studied a great deal, however, other types of tricks are classed as cognitive illusions (tricking the audience using higher-level cognitive functions), the exact mechanisms of which are not yet fully understood. Cognitive illusions usually involve some kind of mental misdirection, often of attention or causal inference, and are seen in most magic tricks.

Using the principles of stage magic to investigate cognitive functioning is a relatively untapped area at present, but it could be an excellent resource. One study, for example, used a magic trick to gather evidence for the attentional spotlight. Participants’ eyes were tracked whilst they observed a magician perform a simple magic trick involving misdirection and sleight of hand. It was found that participants would miss the trick even if they were gazing in the right area and, that whether they blinked or not during the trick did not affect whether they missed it; in other words the misdirection affected their attentional spotlight rather than their gaze. A similar effect has been shown using the Vanishing Ball illusion; participants did not direct their gaze to where the ball “vanished”, despite being fooled by the illusion. This indicates that it was their attention that was fooled by the trick and not their eyes.

So we really can use magic in research, which I think is pretty awesome, and there is a great deal that magic tricks could teach us about how our cognitive systems can be tricked and therefore how they work (for more examples and explanations see the links below). But what I think is really interesting about this is that magic tricks have been around for centuries; long, long before anyone even thought of psychology as a discipline, yet magic utilises complex psychological phenomena to fool and entertain us, and magicians have a control over human perceptions that we struggle to replicate in the lab. We could almost think of magic tricks as being the first behavioural experiments and magicians, the first psychologists.

http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/08/psychology-of-magic-3-critical.php

http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v9/n11/full/nrn2473.html

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3 Comments

  1. The way you took an area of entertainment and applied psychology is very novel and definitely amusing. It is very curious when you ever see magicians who ‘reveal’ how they do their tricks or when you see Derren Brown run circles around people. What this definitely highlights is that psychology is a lot bigger and can even entertain rather than just being swotty theoretical papers that can only bore. Interesting blog I just feel you could have brushed over perhaps another point about how psychology has novel benefits when applied.

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  2. Honestly one of the more original blogs i’ve read, this really is a great application for the use of psychology within real life. The concept of magic being further developed by the aid of real science is definitely an interesting one. Take the work by brefczynski and Yedoe for example, they were able to find evidence that there is in fact a physiological basis for attention spotlight. With real conclusive evidence supporting this idea, further research can be conducted into attention spotlight into the flexibility of it, thus being able to moderate magic tricks further to become more affective illusions.
    http://www.neurosci.umn.edu/courses/4151/4151-papers/Costello_paper.pdf

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  1. Last comments, beyond cutting it close… | psud1a

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