Teller and the neuroscience of magic

Writing in Wired, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) about his contribution to a recent paper on the neurology of magic. Fascinating reading -- magic as applied neuroscience.

Consider a technique used by the legendary pickpocket Apollo Robbins, another coauthor of the Nature article spearheaded by Macknik and Martinez-Conde. When the researchers asked him about his devious methods--how he could steal the wallet of a man who knew he was going to have his pocket picked--they learned something surprising: Robbins said the trick worked only when he moved his free hand in an arc instead of a straight line. According to the thief, these arcs distract the eyes of his victims for a matter of milliseconds, just enough time for his other hand to pilfer their belongings.

At first, the scientists couldn't explain this phenomenon. Why would arcs keep us from looking at the right place? But then they began to think about saccades, movements of the eye that can precede conscious decisions about where to turn one's gaze. Saccades are among the fastest movements produced by the human body, which is why a pickpocket has to trick them: The eyes are in fact quicker than the hands. "This is an idea scientists had never contemplated before," Macknik says. "It turns out, though, that the pickpocket was onto something." When we see a hand moving in a straight line, we automatically look toward the end point--this is called the pursuit system. A hand moving in a semicircle, however, seems to short-circuit our saccades. The arc doesn't tell our eyes where the hand is going, so we fixate on the hand itself--and fail to notice the other hand reaching into our pocket. "The pickpocket has found a weakness in the way we perceive motion," Macknik says. "Show the eyes an arc and they move differently."

While the magicians are educating the scientists, so far the scientists haven't offered much in return. Cowboy trick aside, Teller says, "this is an example of entertainers getting there first." And he wishes it weren't so. Teller hopes that laboratory insights will offer ways to break free of the stale tricks that have defined magic for decades--much as new technologies made possible the illusions of David Abbott in the early 20th century. A loan shark in Omaha, Nebraska, Abbott performed innovative, late-night shows in his living room. (Harry Houdini was one of many magicians who made the pilgrimage.) "Abbott used to say he wasn't satisfied with a trick unless people began to weep," Teller says. "He was that good."

Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion (via Kottke)

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  1. “Robbins said the trick worked only when he moved his free hand in an arc instead of a straight line.”

    Of course! These are not the droids you’re looking for…

  2. “The eyes are in fact quicker than the hands. “This is an idea scientists had never contemplated before,” Macknik says. “It turns out, though, that the pickpocket was onto something.””

    While investigating these tricks are interesting, lets please not forget decades of neuroscience research while we do it.

    Any undergraduate in neuroscience could tell you that a saccade is very rapid, and faster than our hands.

  3. That has to be the most effort ever gone into convincing people on your right side that you’re a littering chain-smoker with a bunch of pockets who nevertheless keeps cigarettes on his ear.

  4. I’ve had the good fortune to do business with those guys and he’s truly a fine historian, researcher and master of the art. I will always be notreallyTeller.

  5. “Abbott used to say he wasn’t satisfied with a trick unless people began to weep”

    I feel the same way about singing in the car. I’m not doing a good enough job until one of the passengers starts crying.

  6. This is just about the only P&T video I’m willing to watch, as it’s more about telling you the principles rather than spoiling a trick.

    #2 – Actually, that’s probably more because those moves hit harder than straight-line movements.

  7. I’d be curious to see if the art of non-focus, or perceiving the whole scene simultaneously, is more adept at recognizing illusions. Musashi talked about it a fair bit. He didn’t look specifically at the feet, the hands, the elbows, the eyes, or the sword when in battle, but instead kept his eyes relaxed, seeing everything and making best use of his peripheral vision.

    The portion of the brain involved in peripheral vision is more adept at understanding patterns and motion. I’ve heard that you can learn to run through the woods in pitch dark by learning to use your peripheral vision and trust your intuition. The trick I heard works best is to wear a baseball cap with a pencil taped to the brim, and a bit of luminescent whatever attached to the tip of the pencil. You focus your eyes on the glowing dot and use the subtle changes of shadow received by the more sensitive cones of your peripheral vision, creating an intuitive map in your brain for your body to adjust to.

    They talk about that kind of vision in a lot of martial arts, but also other sports. It’s my understanding they also teach it to special forces, the ‘thousand yard stare’.

    In practicing knifefighting, I have found using round movements as misdirection in order to sneak in quick strikes through my opponent’s defenses works remarkably effectively. That said, my advice is to never ever get in a knife fight, because even if you’re good you still get cut way too often.

  8. interesting. Try it on a karate master and see what his eyes do.

    My thought was how this applies to the use of circular movements in the practice of Aikido. Perhaps this adds to the “guidance” a practitioner uses against an assailant.

  9. @#16 Anonymous

    While I’d like to try that, explaining to the EMT/Officers/psychologist why I was running through the woods in the middle of the night with a glowing pencil taped to my hat, wouldn’t be worth it.

    Still, a cool idea, nonetheless.

  10. @13 Daemon

    Please cite any trick they have ruined in any video?

    P&T often do not really reveal any true secrets and only further confuse people who delude themselves into thinking they have been let in on the trick. They are notorious for false reveals.

    Even if they did reveal methods, that doesn’t ruin the trick. I know exactly how many effects are done but I still love watching great artists perform them. If you only watch magic to play gotcha with the magician you are missing the real show. Take their cups & balls routine which does fully reveal method but in the process makes one of the best acts out of the trick ever – and watching others do the cups and balls is still fun

    I caught their show at the Rio a couple nights ago and it is still the best ticket in Vegas, IMO

  11. 1) I love Penn and Teller.

    2) “Ruining” a trick never ruins it for me. Ever. It just changes the appreciation. It goes from “OMG how’d he do that???” to “OMG he’s good!” The thing I’m always struck by when I learn how a trick works is how simple it is, and yet how hard to pull off, and how we never assume the trick is where it actually is because it just seems too hard. But that’s actually how it’s done. I’ve actually known some professional magicians over the years. Things like, “well they couldn’t have possibly gotten through that tiny hole”? Yeah, they sometimes actually did get in through that tiny hole, and just are so strong and limber that it didn’t show.

  12. Try swinging a toy in front of a cat. Move it in straight lines and the cat will follow it. Swing it around in a circle and the cat will try, briefly, then give up. The circular motion seems to confuse them.

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