Vanishing Perception With Magic

Master magician Prakash Puru took out a silver coin and held it with one hand. He snapped his fingers. In seconds the coin disappeared, only to reappear later by his elbow. Over and over again the coin vanished, much to the delight of a packed audience at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC.

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Tony Ro (left) and Prakash Puru (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Puru was invited to discuss the ways magicians manipulate perception to create illusions with neuroscientist Tony Ro. The Brainwave Series program, “Why Magicians are Master Manipulators,” focused on the neuroscience of perception and how its principles can be used to create magic.

Ro, Ph.D., the Presidential Professor in Psychology and Biology at the City University of New York, conducts research focused on the neural mechanisms underlying sensation and perception. He described a study where the attention of participants was manipulated with distractions, such as a difficult task or a complex scene. The study revealed that people commonly fail to notice objects that are right in front of them.

Puru showed how the study’s principle works in magic by explaining his trick, a practice frowned upon by magicians. He disclosed how he pretended to put the coin in one hand, while actually palming it in the other hand. Even though the audience did not see the coin move, their expectations shaped their perception. When you see someone make the movement to transfer a coin from one hand or the other, the coin usually moves, he explained. Paru continued with a quote by famous magician Teller of Penn and Teller fame: “[Magic is] the theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that—in our hearts—ought to.”

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Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Puru also talked about another important aspect of the trick: his gaze. Looking at the audience captured their attention and put the focus on him. Ro explained that we often prioritize faces over objects when choosing where to direct our focus. He described an experiment where infants were shown paddles with either a smiley face or scrambled features. The infants were much more likely to follow the paddle with the face, suggesting its importance to the brain, even at an early age.

Both Ro and Puru agreed that magicians and neuroscientists have a common goal: a better understanding of human perception. Puru said he often knew the result of his actions, but not “the why” produced. The discussion with Ro helped the audience link the effects of Puru’s slight of hand to neuroscience.

Want to see for yourself how the coin trick is done? Check out the Youtube video below. However, as Puru warned, once you realize how you have been fooled, you’ll never be surprised by the trick again. The magic is in the unconscious manipulation of your perception!

This year is the tenth year of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, where popular personalities are paired with neuroscientists for a themed discussion. For more coverage, see How to Perceive Without Sight, Listen to Your Ingredients, and A Tasty Program at the Rubin.

– Ali Chunovic

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