The psychology behind the magic

Cyberillusionist and TED all-star Marco Tempest is known for dazzling attendees with a unique blend of magic and computer technology on the stage. But in his TEDActive workshop today, he pulled back the curtain on how magic interacts with a far more sophisticated technology, the human brain.

He laid out the fundamental psychological principle that governs magic tricks: the interplay between focus and distraction, known technically as “misdirection.” When the audience is focusing on what you want them to see, they won’t notice what you don’t. In other words, a good magician must create a believable narrative for what the audience is meant to think is happening in order to conceal the truth. “When the fake resembles the real,” says Marco, “the deception is complete.”

But deception is not the only goal — an audience that feels duped is not a happy audience. Just as important as misdirection is the classic “suspension of disbelief,” a 200-year-old term that captures the emotional experience of any well-crafted fiction. For that reason, Marco shares that magic should not only be about the trick, but about the effect of wonder and excitement that the viewer retains.

On the simplest level, storytelling helps to distract the audience from the magician’s method. But it’s the story that often sticks with a viewer long after the trick is over. In fact, Marco explains, how the audience recalls the trick happening is rarely how it actually happened.

That’s because what we think of as sleight of hand is really better understood as sleight of mind — setting up familiar visual patterns so the brain jumps to the wrong conclusion. If we’re used to seeing an object transfer from one hand to the other when a passing gesture is completed, we tend to assume the object has been transfered even when it hasn’t. We reconstruct in our memories an inaccurate version of events.

As we’ve seen so clearly at TED2015, our brains are truly amazing pattern recognition machines, able to extrapolate (usually correctly) from what we know of the world. But as some of our great scientists struggle to overcome the fatal flaws in this method while others attempt to teach it to machines, our great magicians are out there cleverly spinning the quirks of our brains into unforgettable moments of wonder.

By Morton Bast

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