New Bond Street, London, England. Photo by Matt Stuart/Magnum
Seeing things that are hidden; failing to see things in plain sight. How magic exploits the everyday weirdness of perception
The Amazing Johnathan pretends to cut his arm with a big knife. ‘What you are about to see,’ he says, ‘is just a trick.’ He only scratches the surface, but you can already see some blood. ‘It is stage blood. It is riding on the surface of my arm, it is not penetrating my arm, that would be real, this is an illusion.’ And then, all of a sudden, he exclaims: ‘This is real!’ and penetrates his arm with the big blade. You can see it right in front of your eyes, it sure looks as real as anything ever did. Just for good measure, he zealously mutilates his arm a bit more, and then withdraws the knife, showing that the arm is unsevered. ‘It is a trick,’ he says nonchalantly, as if the carnal and graphic butchery you just witnessed never happened. But now you have a hard time believing him, because you saw it happen with your own eyes.
According to Teller, the master magician of Penn and Teller fame, magic is best conceived of as ‘a form of theatre that depicts impossible events as though they were really happening’. Thus, he points out in an interview with the Smithsonian, ‘you experience magic as real and unreal at the same time’. By this account, the Amazing Johnathan’s performance is magic at its best. You just saw that the knife really cut though his arm, but you know it cannot be true, hence the whole thing feels utterly unreal at the same time.
Trying to figure out the secret behind the knife-through-arm trick is extremely difficult. It is as if all the doors to the secrets behind the tricks are closed. Maybe the blood was fake blood (it was), but still, you did see the blade penetrating the arm, and you also saw that the arm was unsevered afterwards. What are the options? Was your attention manipulated in any way? Maybe it was, but how would that explain what you just saw? Maybe the magician made you see something that did not happen? Yes, in fact he did, but how is that possible? And if so, doesn’t that imply the existence of magical powers after all, like extraordinary powers of suggestion?
It is well-known that magicians can make spectators’ question their own sense of reality by misdirecting their attention. The vanishing cigarette trick used in intriguing research by the magician-psychologist Gustav Kuhn at the University of Durham and his colleagues is a case in point. Here, the magician is about to light a cigarette, but notices that he is trying to light up its wrong end. He turns the cigarette around and tries to light it again, but now the lighter seems to have disappeared. He looks with surprise at the hand in which the lighter is supposed to be, flicks it open with a snap of the fingers and reveals that it is gone. He then looks back at the other hand holding the cigarette, but now the cigarette has disappeared as well. An investigation of how people react to this trick shows that almost nobody is able to figure out how the cigarette disappeared when they view it for the first time, but if you let people watch it a second time, it’s blatantly obvious to all of them. The magician simply dropped the cigarette into his lap, right in front of their eyes.
Of course, the magician’s gesturing is skilfully orchestrated to direct your attention to the other hand and away from the dropping cigarette. The interesting point, however, is that when you view the trick for the first time, you don’t really have the impression that you are blind at the location where the cigarette falls. Quite to the contrary, you have the impression that you see everything that is going on with utmost clarity. When you watch the trick a second time, however, you see the cigarette fall down as if to mock your sanity, and you wonder how on earth you could have missed it the first time around.
The vanishing cigarette trick provides an excellent example of a startling and highly counterintuitive phenomenon called ‘inattentional blindness’, a phenomenon studied in the 1990s by the American psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock. This term is aptly chosen, because we are indeed dealing with a kind of sighted blindness. The basic phenomenon is that you will typically fail to see something you’re looking at directly if you’re attending to something else. This sighted blindness of ours is routinely exploited by magicians and, as the vanishing cigarette trick illustrates, it enables magicians to perform their secret moves right before our eyes.
Inattentional blindness is just one example of a more general feature of our visual experience known to cognitive scientists as ‘the grand illusion’. When we look at the world around us, almost everything in our visual field appears clear, vivid and rich in detail but, in experiments, our objective ability to detect change is more suggestive of an observer with a bag on his head, with just a small hole through which to see anything. This observation hole can be moved around by the observer himself or it can be manipulated automatically when interesting events occur in the environment. But at any given moment, the observer sees the world only through a small hole in a bag. The essence of the grand illusion is that you have the impression of a clear view, while in reality you are limited by what you can see through the little hole in the bag over your head…