Using Magic as a Vehicle to Elucidate Attention


Attention, the awareness and selection of elements in our physical or mental environments, is a central concept in neuroscience. Michael I Posner and colleagues have proposed a three‐network model of attention. ‘Alerting’ involves increased readiness for immanent stimuli, ‘orienting’ refers to selecting amid various stimuli; whereas ‘executive attention’ links attention to decision making, planning and other higher cognitive functions. Though ignorant of the neural mechanisms underlying human attention, magicians are skilled at exploiting human attention to achieve their effects. Recent interest in the neuroscience of magic has built bridges between the practice of magic and the study of attention. However, beyond illustrating how our attention systems can be tricked, magic can be employed in research to explore otherwise unachievable conditions. Such methods provide a unique opportunity to study atypical attention, providing important insights into the function of human attention and other key cognitive domains.

Key Concepts

  • Attention refers to the preparedness for and selection of particular aspects of our environment or of ideas in our mind.

  • Attention can be overt, that is tied to fixation, or covert, like when we attend to something we are not looking at.

  • There are three attentional networks – alerting, orienting and executive – each with distinct neural correlates.

  • Magicians exploit change blindness, inattentional blindness and choice blindness to achieve many effects.

  • Neuroscientists have recruited magic as a tool for uncovering the nature of many cognitive processes, most notably attention.

  • Pushing healthy individuals towards atypical attention – via hypnosis, deception and other methods – introduces unique experimental opportunities.

  • Aside from helping direct investigations of attention, magic tricks can be effectively incorporated into certain experimental designs.

Keywords: attention; magic; alerting; orienting; executive; atypical attention

Figure 1.

Alerting. Adapted from Raz and Buhle .

Figure 2.

Orienting. Adapted from Raz and Buhle .

Figure 3.

Conflict. Adapted from Raz and Buhle .

Figure 4.

The number prediction trick.



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Further Reading

Michael IP (ed.) (2004) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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Raz, Amir, and Zigman, Philip(Dec 2009) Using Magic as a Vehicle to Elucidate Attention. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021396]