Science is now learning how the mind works, by investigating how magic works. A good magician does more than tricks that require sleight of hands, he or she uses psychology and understanding of how to manipulate the human mind. Here is an eye opening article on this subject that appeared in the NewScientist:
Magicology: Casting a spell on the mind
Professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins has an uncanny ability to control minds. He can manipulate people to an extraordinary degree, drawing their attention away from his thieving hands as he purloins watches and wallets in plain sight. These days, Robbins gives his ill-gotten gains back – he has given up a life of crime to become an entertainer – but most of his victims still have no idea they’ve been robbed until it’s too late.
Watching Robbins at work is like watching somebody with supernatural powers. Yet, like his fellow conjurors, Robbins deceives his targets using nothing more than a finely honed understanding of human psychology. “I think of myself as a folk psychologist,” he says. “It’s all about developing an instinct for how the human mind works.”
After years of ignoring magic, researchers are starting to realise that the methods magicians use to manipulate the human mind might hold important insights into how it works. “We’re all thinking about the same questions,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “We just come at the problems from different angles.”
Magic is all about appearing to break the laws of nature – making solid objects appear or disappear, sawing human beings in half, reading people’s minds, and so on. The laws of nature, of course, are inviolable, which is why magicians target the human brain instead, packed as it is with glitches and weaknesses that can be exploited to create the illusion of doing the impossible. And they’re brilliant at it: magic tricks only work if you fool all of the people all of the time.
Cognitive neuroscientists also have a long-standing interest in tricks of the mind, as these are a useful source of insight into how the brain works. Visual illusions, for example, have taught them a huge amount about how the brain processes visual information. Now they’re dipping into the treasure chest of cognitive illusions provided by magic.
Over the past couple of years, neuroscientists and magicians have been getting together to create a science that might be called “magicology”. If successful, both sides stand to benefit. By plundering the magicians’ book of tricks, researchers hope to develop powerful new tools for probing perception and cognition. And if they find any tricks they can’t explain, that could lead to new knowledge about how the brain works. Similarly, magicians hope that the collaboration will lead to new magic tricks by alerting them to perceptual or cognitive weaknesses that they didn’t already know about. “The real proof that a science of magic has come of age will be when we can use science to build a better magic trick,” says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK.