Age-old magic tricks can help understand why we see, think and act

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Washington, July 23 : The science behind age-old magic tricks can help in better understanding of how humans see, think, and act, say researchers at the University of British Columbia and Durham University in the U.K.

The study, which is published in the current online issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, reveals that the elements of human cognition and perception not yet fully understood by scientists may be clarified by analysing tricks and techniques used by magicians over thousands of years.

The investigators explored several of the key techniques of the magic trade - categorised as "misdirection, illusion and forcing" - which have only recently been formally identified by scientists and taken seriously as a valid research area.

An example of "misdirection" would be the cigarette and lighter trick, which the researchers used in one of their vision experiments.

"Although a few attempts have been made in the past to draw links between magic and human cognition, the knowledge obtained by magicians has been largely ignored by modern psychology," says Ronald Rensink, an associate professor who specializes in vision and cognition and teaches in the departments of Psychology and Computer Science at UBC.

Study co-authors are Gustav Kuhn from Durham University's Psychology Department and Alym Amlani, a recent BSc graduate of UBC's Cognitive Systems Program, which integrates computer science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics. Both Kuhn and Amlani are practising magicians who argue that conjurers are "miles ahead" of scientists.

"Imagine someone who makes an object disappear or successfully predicts what you will do next," says study co-authors are Gustav Kuhn from Durham University's Psychology Department.

"These tricks may seem like they defy the laws of physics and logic, but they are actually created through a combination of skill and a deep knowledge of human psychology," Kuhn added.

For example, the vanishing ball illusion indicates that anticipation plays a factor in what we see - our minds tend to fill in the blanks. In this trick, the magician tosses a red ball in the air two times and on the third throw will palm the ball.

However, study participants will report seeing the magician toss the ball in the air three times.

The researchers say their work has long-term implications for human-computer interfaces - from online training films and computer graphics to video games and animation.

These activities require increasingly sophisticated software capable of grabbing and holding the viewer's attention.

They developed various magic tricks and experiments to test recent findings in vision science, which shows that only a small part of information that enters our eyes actually enters our conscious awareness.

One particular finding shows a distinction between where you look and what you see.

ANI

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