The Illusionist

Illusion is the act of performing seemingly impossible feats using natural means. David Copperfield raised a giant screen in front of the Statue of Liberty. When he dropped it, the statue was gone.

How is this possible, you ask yourself? You have a pretty good understanding of how objects behave and you know from experience that objects cannot simply disappear into thin air, yet this is exactly what you see. Magic is one of the oldest art forms and since written records began, magicians have baffled and amazed their audiences by creating illusions of the impossible. While most of their tricks remain precious secrets, scientists have started studying magic to gain insights into how and why our minds are so easily deceived.

Magic allows you to experience the impossible. It creates a conflict between the things you think can happen and the things that you experience. While some magicians would like you to believe that they possess real magical powers, the true secret behind magic lies in clever psychological techniques that exploit limitations in the way our brains work. Many of these limitations are very counter-intuitive which is why we can experience the magical wonder of the impossible.

How? Let’s start with the basics. Vision is our most trusted sense, and influences many of our thoughts and behaviours. In fact, vision is so important that we often don’t believe things until we see them with our own eyes. But it turns out that our visual experiences are far less reliable than we intuitively think. It’s relatively easy to distort your perceptual experience and these distortions become very apparent when we look at visual illusion.

Visual illusions occur when there is a mismatch between your perceptual experience and the true state of the world.

We are often surprised by how these illusions deceive us, but it turns out that pretty much all of our perception is an illusion, whether we’re walking down the street or attempting to suss the latest card trick. Intuitively, we think of our eyes as simply capturing truthful images of the world. But in reality, our visual experience results from complex neuronal processes that make clever estimates about what the world is like. And as with all predictions, they are never 100% correct. This leads to errors, and it is these errors that magicians have mastered and exploit.

Take the vanishing Statue of Liberty for instance. They stealthily turned the platform that the audience and camera sat on. I recall that they played loud music with heavy bass to conceal the vibration of the motor and movement. No one expected that they would move the audience. Since their view was framed by a proscenium when the curtain was reopened, the statue appeared to be gone, when it was actually just barely out of our sight.