While peeking at a Special Secret Magical Message Board, I came across this “Perspective” piece from Nature Reviews Neuroscience on magic. Specifically, it’s an overview penned by a motley crew of magicians, thieves and brain scientists (including James Randi and Teller, of Penn-and-) that demonstrates how techniques used by magicians (and pickpockets) could be very useful in the cognitive science laboratory:
This Perspective addresses how cognitive and visual illusions are applied in magic, and their underlying neural mechanisms. We also discuss some of the principles that have been developed by magicians and pickpockets throughout the centuries to manipulate awareness and attention, as well as their potential applications to research, especially in the study of the brain mechanisms that underlie attention and awareness. This Perspective therefore seeks to inform the cognitive neuroscientist that the techniques used by magicians can be powerful and robust tools to take to the laboratory. The study of the artistic intuitions that magicians have developed about attention and awareness might further lead to significant new scientific insights into their neural bases.
In a classic example of inattentional blindness, Simons and Chabris asked observers to count how many times the members of a basketball team passed a ball to one another, while ignoring the passes made by members of a different team. While they concentrated on the counting task, most observers failed to notice a person wearing a gorilla suit walk across the scene (the gorilla even stops briefly at the centre of the scene and beats its chest!). In this situation no acute interruption or distraction was necessary, as the assigned task of counting passes was absorbing. Further, the observers had to keep their eyes on the scene at all times in order to accurately perform the task. Memmert showed, using eye-tracking recordings, that many observers did not notice the gorilla even when they were looking directly at it.