Questioning Perception with Illusions

Can you spot the difference between the two pictures in the video above? Most of the packed audience at the “The Neuroscience of Illusion” event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan couldn’t. What if we told you to look for something the men couldn’t leave without? Even with that clue, many attendees were still stumped. One women continued to struggle even when told to look for the man without a hat. If you’re like her and still confused, the engine of the plane is only present in one picture!

What makes it so hard to see what’s right in front of us? The audience’s response to the video illustrates that our field of vision, called the “attention spotlight,” is very narrow, said Apollo Robbins, speaker at the event. Called “The Gentleman Thief,” Robbins is a master pickpocket and illusionist who is said to have picked the pockets of more than 250,000 men and women. When we are focused on something intently, we may miss other important details. Pickpockets manipulate this shortcoming to divert attention and steal, he said.

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The Science of Illusion

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Most talks on the brain science of illusion feature slides or recordings, but the presentation last night at AAAS in Washington, DC, offered illustrations in four dimensions—a live performance by mesmerist Alain Nu. “The Man Who Knows” treated us to a series of experiences hard to explain but easy to enjoy. I’m going to describe a bit of what happened but you may want to just jump to the event’s video below to see for yourself, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

For example, Nu showed us a can of soda, popping the top, pouring soda into two ice-filled glasses, crumpling the can a bit as he invited two volunteers to quaff it down. After they had, Nu’s hands danced around the can, and its bends slowly straightened—and then it was full of soda. He popped the top, and poured more soda out, to the evident enjoyment of the two volunteers, who got a second helping. How did he do it? After his set, Nu joined three scientists who told us we’d only fooled ourselves.

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