Are we all living in an illusion, and can two people see the same thing differently? How exactly do magicians trick or hack our brains?
Dr. Luis M Martínez, director of the Virtual Mind Laboratory at the Spanish National Research Council, joins us to share the latest findings in neuroscience to explain how magic deceives us and amazes us. He shows us how illusionists skillfully “hack” our brains to alter our perceptions and expectations of things and, like a good joke, deliver a surprise at the end.
Phil Stieg: Hello, I’d like to welcome Dr. Luis Martinez, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, Spain. He researches something most of us have enjoyed at some time in our lives, magic. He is one of the founders of the Virtual Mind Laboratory, a network of neuroscientists, artists, and scholars from both the sciences and the humanities who work together to better understand magic from different approaches. Today we are here to discuss his book, The Illusionist Brain, a scientific but fun book that looks at how magicians or illusionists trick, or even hack, our brains.
Luis, thank you for joining us today.
Luis Martinez: Thank you, Phil, for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Phil Stieg: I have to ask, I’ve noticed in your resume that you were at the Rockefeller Institute, and obviously your background is in vision. Where does the interest for you come from? Was it something as a child? Were you allured by magic shows?
Luis Martinez: Well, I definitely liked magic as a child. But the thing came back to me when I was in college, and I already knew that I wanted to become a neuroscientist. And I went to a show, to a magic show in which the magician was a friend of the family, and he started performing tricks very theatrically, and one of them actually caught my attention. It’s a very silly trick in the end because it uses a gimmick, so it’s not even hard to perform. I could do that trick. But at the time it was extremely funny. He kept pouring milk, water and red wine from the same jar, alternatively, practically at will and without an end to it. And I was mesmerized by that. How is that even possible? Because actually the jar even looked transparent, which was kind of extremely weird to me.
Phil Stieg: So explain to me what happens in our brain when you do or somebody does a magic trick.
Luis Martinez: The funny thing is that our brain, is not actually a passive perception machine where sensations are processed in a linear fashion. Simply, we open our eyes and the world is just forced onto us by some kind of weird physiological process. The brain is actually in the business of predicting the world in front of us. So sensations, actually what they do is serve us to adjust our hypotheses about the world. And since we operate on a predictive fashion, then when a magician presents something to us through their manipulations and gestures, we are always one step ahead and we are predicting what will come next. But they know that, of course, because they share the world with us and they know when we anticipate things, they know the moves that they have to do in order to make us believe that they’re going this way and they are actually doing something completely different. And that’s what take us to this unexpected magic upshot that always is the end of any magic trick.
Phil Stieg: But in the beginning of your book, you talk about the fact that on a daily basis we actually live in an illusion. Is that because you say that our brains are predictive?
Luis Martinez: Are predictive. Yes, exactly. That’s the kind of illusion. So to put it in a very blunt way, it’s like you are playing a movie in your head that is actually aligned with the world. Aligned with the things that you’re going to encounter and the way you interact with the world.
It’s like you have an internal model of the world and all you do when you open your eyes or you touch something is make sure that everything is aligned, that everything fits. That’s the illusion. And the magician is interfering with that process.
Phil Stieg: So when we’re watching a movie, we’ve seen movies before, so we have this predictive model that’s working in our brains so that we anticipate and predict. And that’s what the magician is doing. If they do something a little in one way, your brain is automatically going to predict that, but then they twist it. Correct. And that’s how they trick you.
Luis Martinez: Exactly. Think about it as a joke, because structurally, a magic trick is very similar as a joke. It’s just a step-by-step narrative where everything is predictable, everything makes sense, everything is fluent until you reach the end. And in the end, you are so surprised in a joke that you are laughing out loud. And in a magic trick, you are just simply mesmerized, because what you have just witnessed is supposed to be impossible.
Phil Stieg: Explain to me, then, the trick of moving the three cups with a ball. One of them has a ball underneath it. One would think that your eyes could move fast enough that you can’t get tricked. What’s going on there?
Luis Martinez: Well, the thing is that this is one of the first trick that I actually learned.
Phil Stieg: You are a magician. You’ve been holding out.
Luis Martinez: No, but I cannot do it properly because it requires a lot of practice. In the simplest case scenario, which is how this trick has been done since the Egyptians, basically. So for thousands of years, this is probably the oldest trick in the book. And what you do is you present a little ball and then you cover it with the cups, and then you lift the cup to show where it is. And when putting it back, you actually pick up the ball with these two fingers. So there’s no ball to be found behind beneath any of the cups. So it doesn’t really matter how fast you look, you’re never going to make it.
Phil Stieg: And is that because the reason they can do that is they’ve distracted you with some other motion to make your eyes move, or-
Luis Martinez: No, it’s extremely fast, and they actually cover the move with the cup. So that’s it.
Phil Stieg: So let me ask, since we’re all living in an illusion, can two people see the same thing differently?
Luis Martinez: Yes, definitely. See, this is one thing that actually happens to us a lot. We might not be aware, but there are multiple realities happening simultaneously. And this is because all of us have a slightly different internal model of the world. This is because our internal model of the world is shaped by evolution, of course.
These are features that have shaped our brains and that all of us shared, simply because we inhabit the same world. Then different habitats in this world we have populated, in which we thrive, might shape slightly different or differently our brains and our internal models of the world.
But then there are aspects that I only share with people with the same cultural background as me. They have been brought up in the same kind of cultural, social environment. And then there are aspects of that internal model of the world that I share with nobody because nobody, not even my closest ones, have had the same exact experiences as I have during my lifetime. That’s what explains that different realities emerge in the same situations.
Phil Stieg: Plus, I would also think that we all have different neurochemistry. We have different neural networks, different wiring. So then the next question is, in your mind, what is reality?
Luis Martinez: Anil Seth, a British cognitive scientist, says that reality are the illusions that we agree, that we collectively agree upon. And that is a pretty nice explanation for reality are the things that we all share and we agree upon. The physical reality is there, of course, but the reality that we experience is a shared delusion, I think.
Phil Stieg: But I have to admit, as I was reading the book, I was kind of going at a painting and I was going, is that really what the painting is? You made me question my own reality. But you mentioned in the book that a magician lives or inhabits two realities. So what do you mean by that?
Luis Martinez: Can I tell you a story? And you cut me if you think it’s too long.
Phil Stieg: Absolutely!
Luis Martinez: But this is a story that’s popular in Spain, or at least region in Spain where I was born, which is in between Spain and Portugal, right there at the border. And during the Franco era there was a lot of smuggling going on across the border, and the story that they told us, at least the version that I heard, went like this:
“There was a guy who used to cross the border every day pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying a bundle of hay every single day. So a border agent was suspicious, and every single day, he was searching around for something being smuggled there. This went on for decades, and he never found anything. And in the end, they met in a bar at the village, and the retired border patrol couldn’t help it and said, “Come on, we’re both retired. Now. I know you were smuggling something. What was it?” And the guy went, “Wheelbarrows!”
And that’s the story. That’s the thing. There are two realities. The reality of the agent, of the border patrol agent who saw the wheelbarrow simply as a vehicle to transport things, who saw the bundle of hay simply as a container and couldn’t find the content of the thing because there was nothing in there. And then the reality of the guy who was the smuggler, for him, the wheelbarrow was the content was seen to be a smuggler then.
Magicians do exactly the same thing. Magicians perform a choreography of movements, transformations, and things for us to live in a second life, in a second reality, in which everything is predictable up until the very end. While they do all these things, we are not aware of their life. That’s their internal life. And the magician is aware of both of them. That’s how he’s able to play the thing.
Phil Stieg: So relate that, then, to what the neuroscience or what’s going on in our brain with the sleight of hand magic card trick. What’s the dual reality, then, of a card trick?
Luis Martinez: There are many ways to trick you. Sometimes when a magician shows you the first card in the deck, he’s actually not showing you the first one. He’s showing you the second one. So when he makes, then, the movement to hide or to lose, as they say, the hand that you picked in the middle of the deck, that card is still up in the deck as the first one. So there are many ways to actually trick you into believing. So the fact that he’s lifting two is just the internal life. What you see, which is that he’s lifting the top one, is the external life, is this type of thing, right? And in your brain, you’re not even aware that that’s happening. The only thing that you see is that he’s lifting one card.
Phil Stieg: So is this what you mean when you’re talking then, about change blindness?
Luis Martinez: Yes, change blindness is something that has to do with our inability to memorize and follow changes in a scene when they are produced across a visual interruption, or that change is actually introduced very slowly in the visual scene. Right. That is change blindness.
Phil Stieg: So give me an example, because you talk in the book about originally magicians would do things quickly so that they could hide what they’re doing. But then you talked about slow illusion. Yes, and I’m presuming that’s where that’s where I think the change blindness comes in. But I have to admit I don’t understand it. So give me an example.
Luis Martinez: Change blindness actually was discovered by cognitive scientists in the late nineties of the past century. This trick that I’m going to mention, which is pure change and in-attentional blindness, was designed by Henry Harding, an American magician, in 1905, almost 100 years earlier. So he didn’t even know what change blindness was. And the trick goes like this. Imagine that you have a set of figure cards of the French deck, right? And the magician Henry Harding just opened them in a fan show them face up to the audience and ask the audience to pick up one of them. Just pick up one of them. When that was done, he theoretically turned the other way, the fan with the cards facing up to him. Now, he would theoretically pick up one, throw it away, and then he would turn the fan again for the audience to discover that the car they have picked, each one of the members of the audience individually, was no longer there. So this left them like, wow, what is that? The only solution is that this guy actually forces all of us to select the same card, and then he removed it – which is how the trick was supposed to work.
The reality of it is that the cards that he showed the second time were not the same as the cars he showed the first time. So they were all different. So no matter which one the audience could have picked, he would have no longer be there when he turned the fan again. Simply because of that, the trick worked. And why is that? Because at a visual interruption, the interruption that goes from him showing the cards, turning the cars back to the audience, picking up one and then showing them again that time was enough for the audience to not realize that the cards that were present in the first instant were different from the ones that he was showing them later on.
Phil Stieg: What’s the relationship then between playing with my visual perception and my memory? Because you said that memory is also part of the magician’s reality.
Luis Martinez: Yes. Out of the different types of memory that we have, the iconic memory is precisely what’s going on with this rifle thing. But there are short term memory. For instance, magicians tend to saturate your short term memory so you don’t have resources enough available to keep gathering more information about the trick. And they do that using several techniques. One of them is simply pattern. They ask you questions and they talk to you as an audience. They ask you, I don’t know, very bizarre questions. Like, for instance, how much is 49 plus the square root of 317? And stuff like that.
Phil Stieg: So they’re distracting you.
Luis Martinez: That distracts you, but for a while, saturates your short term memory as well, because you’re trying to remember all the things that are going on and happening at the same time. They divide your attention. They do all these things.
Phil Stieg: So since the brain can’t do two things at once, right?
Luis Martinez: Yeah.
Phil Stieg: So if they distract me with verbal input and they’re playing with my visual input.
Luis Martinez: Then we are very bad at that. Unless one of those things we are doing it automatically. Like, for instance, driving and talking to somebody, we can do that. But if you have to pay attention to two things at the same time, you have to switch between them. You have to alternate. You cannot do them in parallel.
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Narrator: Magicians know that it takes a lot of mental processing to turn the signals from our eyes into what we experience as sight. The same is true for hearing. The hand is not only quicker than the eye, the brain is quicker than the ear.
What we hear depends a lot on what we subconsciously expect we are going to hear. When this ambiguous audio clip went “viral” on social media a few years ago, whether or not you heard it say “Yanny” or “Laurel” depended on what your brain expected it to say.
Psychologist Diana Deutsch at U.C. San Diego has been a pioneer in the field of “auditory illusions” and has published dozens of papers on how the brain predicts what your ears are hearing. A classic example is the mystery melody…
Mystery melody example
This seemingly disjointed set of tones is actually a familiar tune. Dr. Deutsch has simply displaced each note an octave up or down in random order. Here it is in its unscrambled form…
Unscrambled melody (Yankee Doodle).
Now that you know what to expect the melody is, you can probably recognize it in the scrambled form:
Dr. Deutsch also discovered how the brain organizes and simplifies our perception of complicated sounds. When this angular melody is played in your right ear…
And this complimentary melody is played in you left ear…
Your brain will merge them into two smooth scale-like melodies – one appearing in your left ear, and the other in your right.
Interestingly, the choice of which melody appears in which ear differs by whether you are left-handed or right-handed – or should we say “right eared”?
One of the most perplexing of auditory illusions is known as the Shepard Scale, named for psychologist Roger Shepard. This “scale” appears to be infinitely rising, and yet never seems to get any higher. Think of it as the music equivalent of a spinning barber’s pole.
Here again, your brain expects the music to keep going up, and is confused and frustrated when its expectations are not met. It is a device that many composers of scores for films and video games use to elicit a feeling of unease and rising dramatic tension in their audience.
Maybe the next time you go to see a blockbuster action film, you’ll be able to hear the musical magic that is trying to fool your brain.
(Interstitial Theme Music)
Phil Stieg: What’s the importance of surprise in magic?
Luis Martinez: Well, magic is surprise, actually. Surprise marks the difference between the known and the unknown, marks the point at which all your predictions are actually washed away. Something totally unexpected occurs.
That’s what surprise does. And then surprise is followed by different emotions. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed, sometimes you feel extremely mesmerized. Other times you feel uneasy because some people find it very hard to cope with the uncertainty that introduces in our beliefs about reality. Magic is what follows the perception of the impossible.
Phil Stieg: So then is magic like a good joke? Because at the end of the day, a good joke has a punchline, a trick to it. But our brains are working differently, I would think, for each medium. You respond with surprise to a comedian and to an illusionist.
Luis Martinez: Yes.
Phil Stieg: What differently is going on in our brain with the illusionist?
Luis Martinez: Well, the thing is that with the joke, there’s no uncertainty to introduce because there’s no sense of the impossible that follows the joke. The only thing is that there’s something so unexpected that it makes you recapitulate and reconsider all your assumptions. With magic – The thing is that you are faced with the impossible. This is what actually gets you that’s different.
Phil Stieg: I’m sure you also understand that illusions or magic are far more appealing to a young person probably, than to an older person. Is our brain innately wired to appreciate the concept of illusion? And with age and our frontal lobes developing, we become more disillusioned.
Luis Martinez: That is true. Imagine that, or think about it this way when we are very young, we are still building up or gathering the experiences that are used to build up our internal model of the world. So we are curious by nature. We want to experience everything. We want to gather information about anything that we encounter. But that information is going to build up our internal model of the world. But when that is done, when things begin to repeat themselves, then we are happy with that. We are content because the best thing that can happen to us is that we make no prediction errors, that we are constantly in equilibrium with the world.
Phil Stieg: Are there any specific conditions or environmental factors that influence the magical effect?
Luis Martinez: Magic is purely first and foremost a social activity. Magic cannot operate in isolation. You need at least, well, you would say, one spectator in order for magic to operate. But the funny thing is that you need at least two spectators. And I don’t know if this has happened to you and this could happen also.
Not only magic, but when you see something that is a magic trick that is so amazing that you are left without words, like, no. Reaction, the first reaction that you have, and we have taped this several times, is to look to the side to see if the guy sitting next to you has witnessed exactly the same thing as you have, because you need that social kind of confirmation because it’s so bizarre that you need somebody to actually help you out there.
So we’re trying to understand this social interaction using magic because because one of the other things that we notice in some of our experiments is that the phenomena and this is also something that is well known.
Most of the cognitive phenomena that we study in the lab actually work 50, 60% of the time at most. And this is true, for instance, for change blindness or inattentional blindness. But the Princess Card trick, the one that Henry Harden designed, works 100% of the time. This tells you something that your brain is operating in different ways. When you are sitting at a laptop, facing a monitor and performing some task that is not so natural than when you are in the real world performing social interactions, for instance.
Phil Stieg: So what you’re saying, is that magic is better in person than on TV?
Luis Martinez: From the audience perspective, yeah, definitely. You want to go there. You want to see something that is defying your sense of reality, that is presenting you with a world where the rules of the physical world do not apply anymore. You want to see all those things, but with a safety net. That is the thing. Because if you were experiencing all those things in the real world outside of the theater, or you could be kind of in constant shock because you would not be able to deal with the uncertainty with so much prediction errors that you would be making.
That is the thing. That’s why magic impromptu, by the way, actually is so surprising to people. When you are walking the street and suddenly somebody approaches you and plays a magic trick on you, you are usually like, what the hell is that?
Phil Stieg: What about computers, artificial intelligence? Is that going to change the way the illusionist of today approaches the art of trickery and illusion?
Luis Martinez: Well, apparently it will, because there are already people teaching AI to play magic tricks on people. They are trying to do that, but still doesn’t work. Fortunately, we have played magic tricks to an AI. So doing it the other way around, trying to fool an AI. And we found that sometimes that tricks or magic maneuvers that trick us because of the speed of the movements do not trick an AI. Because an AI doesn’t have the physical limits. But there are other things that might trick an AI. And that wouldn’t trick us, for instance. Right.
Phil Stieg: Could you trick an AI with distraction?
Luis Martinez: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. No.
Phil Stieg: Explain to me what the difference is between mentalism and magic.
Luis Martinez: Well, magic plays with the impossible. Mentalism also plays somehow with the impossible. But it plays mainly with credibility, with making sure that people believe that you have powers beyond the human nature. Like, for instance, that you can talk to the death or you can read people’s mind, like if they were open pages in a book and stuff like that. And most of the time they like that assumption in the audience. Magician illusionist on the other hand, they never make that claim they only play illusions to you and that actually selects out different audiences. The audience that go to a mentalist show it’s usually not the same audience that would go to an illusionist show.
Phil Stieg: So it seemed to me that in this day and age mentalists are probably because everybody wants to know where they’re going after they die.
Luis Martinez: Yes, that is absolutely true. Yeah.
Phil Stieg: And finally, what is “amagia”?
Luis Martinez: That is something that we coined for hecklers – people who hate magic so much that they cannot take it and they don’t enjoy it. They physically don’t enjoy it. They cannot take that somebody has fooled them We call it amagia, inspired by amusia. People who cannot enjoy music.
Phil Stieg: I’ve got to ask, why do people put up with politicians, then?
Luis Martinez: That’s a pretty good question. Because they are magicians.
Phil Stieg: They do have the sleight of hand.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Luis Martinez, thank you for spending this time with us. It’s fascinating about how the illusionist can trick us. I’ve been impressed with how each one of us live in our own world of illusion and how we each see things differently. Thank you so much.
Luis Martinez: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to be here.