16 February 2011

Are magicians master mimes?

Research on magic has been getting a lot of attention recently, but most of the focus has been on the psychology of the audience.

But what can we learn by studying the performer?

One of the things you need to be a magician, particularly a close-up magician who works with cards or coins, is dexterity. I tried to learn some basic card tricks once, and failed. It requires some very fine motor control, and I didn’t put in enough work to master it.

ResearchBlogging.orgMany illusions rely on the magician imitating a movement they would make as if they had an object in hand. For instance, some tricks might revolve around pretending to toss a coin from hand to hand, when there is no coin. Peoples’ expectations can be so strong that they will often swear to seeing a coin moving from hand to hand, even when there was no coin.

Are magicians better at this than untrained people? Cavina-Pratesi and colleagues decided to find out.

They recruited experienced magicians and people who were not, and gave them some simple tasks.

See a block on a table, grab it, and move it, or;

See a block on the table, pretend to grab it, and move it.

This was a bit more complicated than it sounds, because the experimenters threw in a twist: you couldn’t see what you were doing.

They used some funky liquid crystal glasses that can switch from transparent to opaque in an instant by applying a little electrical current. This is the same technology used in some new 3D video systems.

People got to see the table, the object they had to pick up and move, but as soon as they started to move their hands, it all went dark, and they had to remember the rest of the move.

When they did this, there were consistent differences across the board between the movements made when people actually picked up and moved an object compared to when they pretended to move the object. Everyone was slower moving their hands when miming, so it isn’t the case that magicians can perfectly mimic their make-believe movements.

On some other factors, the two groups were distinct. Non-magicians tended to hold their fingers together more closely when miming than when they held the real object. Magicians kept their fingers about the same distance apart with both the real and imagined objects.

In a second experiment, people had to do the same sort of task, except in some conditions, there was no object for them to on the table. Instead, they had to imagine moving some familiar object, like a battery.

Without that short-term visual cue and working only from their long-term memory of object size, the magicians did no better than the non-magicians.

There is something different in how magicians are pretending to move things, but what is it? It seems like the magicians are able to use visual information in a different way than non-magicians. The authors put it this way:

(T)he pantomimed actions made by magicians may be indistinguishable from real ones because they have learnt that the best way to fake an action is by performing it “for real”. The talent of magicians therefore lies in their ability to
use visual input from real objects to calibrate a grasping action toward a separate spatial location (that of the imagined object).

Is this skill unique to magicians? Not clear. A follow-up might be to see if other people with lots of motor training perform like the magicians do. Trained mimes or other actors, for instance. Or maybe pianists, who also have highly developed motor control of their fingers, but don’t use use it in creating illusions.

The next logical step in figuring out how magicians are pulling this off is to get a bunch of untalented amateurs, and teach them magic. Then, see what happens as they get better and better. Maybe even throw in a few physiological measurements. Some recordings of muscle activity, or maybe even some brain scans.

That would be an experiment that I totally sign up for. It would be a great excuse to try to learn magic again – for science!


Cavina-Pratesi C, Kuhn G, Ietswaart M, Milner A. 2011. The magic grasp: motor expertise in deception. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16568. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016568

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Photo by Christophe Verdier on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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