At the recent International Congress of Neuroethology, one of the keynote talks was by Susana Martinez-Conde about the psychology of magic. She’s written a few article on illusions, and has a book on the subject coming out soon.
It was great, but it was a little unusual for a neuroethology meeting. It was all humans, so there wasn’t much ethology. And there really wasn’t a lot in the way of neurons. I wondered, “Are there magic tricks for animals?”
Maybe there is.
If you’ve played fetch with a dog for a while, you can “psych them out” by pretending to throw the ball. They’ll tear off after it... and then stop.
The essence of human illusions, psychologically, revolves around attention and expectation. To emphasize how important attention is and how unimportant concealment is, check Penn and Teller’s version of the classic cup and ball trick.
That’s right: you can have everything out in the open, and in many cases, the illusion still works.
Similarly, people’s expectation of what should happen is so strong, they will swear something happened during a magic show that did not.
It seems to me that the “fake throw” plays upon those same elements of attention and expectation in exactly the same way. I can’t help but wonder if the dog experiences this as an illusion very much like humans experiencing an illusion at a magic show. Do they actually “perceive” or “misremember” the ball being thrown? I don’t know, and more frustratingly, I can’t think of a way to test it.
And while I was preparing this, I found a great post on Talking Brains about how the “fake throw” might tell us something about mirror neurons. It might be a bit difficult to use it as a model system.
Can anyone think of any other cases where animals might get fooled and experienced by some of the same tricks as humans?
Macknik, S., King, M., Randi, J., Robbins, A., Teller, ., Thompson, J., & Martinez-Conde, S. (2008). Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9 (11), 871-879 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2473
Photo from here.