The curtain opens. The illusionist enters the scene. He shows an empty bag. Several spectators examine the bag, and find nothing suspicious. After a sleight of hand, the illusionist takes an egg out of the same bag. How did he do it? Was the bag really empty? Is the hand faster than the eye?
The relationship between magic and the brain has been studied for some time . When we talk about magic, we are referring to illusionism, not black magic. Illusionism is an art. It is part of the arts, of culture, like painting or literature. It is the art of deceiving our senses, our brain, with sleight of hand, called “tips and tricks”.
The magic is in our brain
It’s curious: in a spectacle of illusionism, we readily accept cheating. There is a tacit agreement between the magician and the spectator. According to this pact, for the duration of the show, the spectator is ready to believe.
We know that magicians play with our minds all the time and that magic is not real. Despite this, we still enjoy this moment. Neurologists and psychologists may find other use in the art of creating magical illusions. They study perception, attention, memory… ultimately, the limits of the brain.
Some scientists have already started to collaborate with magicians bringing together these two traditional and apparently antagonistic disciplines: science and magic. We say “apparently antagonistic” because in reality they are not. L has magic is the illusion of perception, and perception occurs in our brain.
Magic and the brain: the creation of an illusion
Illusions exist, we see them, we appreciate them. But why do they exist? We could say that illusions exist because of the limitations of the brain since indeed it is not infinite. Our brains have a certain size. Also, it also has a limited number of neurons and neural connections. Thus, our perception, like other basic psychological processes, is limited.
When interpreting reality, the brain takes shortcuts, simulates and masks that reality. Most of the time, it does this effectively. However, sometimes when he creates something that does not exist, then what is called illusion arises.
The brain cannot process everything for several reasons. We start from two-dimensional images to arrive at a three-dimensional image. This is done statistically, by looking for the most probable solution, which sometimes gives rise to illusions.
In addition, the brain is slow and energy intensive. It occupies 3% of the body but consumes 30% of the energy permanently. To solve this problem, it acts in a predictive way, partly living in the past and predicting the future to create the sensation of real time.
The invisible room experience
Let us explain an experiment carried out by the magician Mac King. This magician throws a coin from his right hand to his left hand. He opens the latter but there is no room. She disappeared. In reality the play never left the right hand, but the audience could swear they saw it in the air.
Why is this happening? First, the movement the magician made is identical to the one he would have made to toss the real coin. Then the neural mechanisms of the implicit movement make us believe that we are seeing it. It’s like when we pretend to throw a stick at a dog. In a way, the magician is deceiving us, as we are deceiving the dog.
Another important question is that the study of magic tricks has some utility for scientists. It is clear that magic teaches things to scientists. But what have scientists learned from this collaboration? It helped magicians to realize the values of magic.
As we have seen, and this is not an illusion, magic is used for science and science is used for magic. Our brain is imperfect and thanks to this imperfection it is able to see what does not exist and not see what exists. Magic and brain are intimately linked and without the brain magic could not exist.
If you’d like to learn more about it, we recommend the book Deceptions of the Mind: How Magic Tricks Uncover the Brain Workings of Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde.