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Your Brain on Magic

Sep 26, 2019
Reading time 4 min.

Source: Feel Photo Art/Shutterstock

David Blaine. David Copperfield. Harry Houdini. These three magicians may be rank among the world’s most famous, but there’s someone else who belongs on this list: You. Even if you can’t make things vanish with a wand or pull a rabbit out of a hat, that doesn’t mean you weren’t born with preternatural skills you may not realize you have, but which you actually use every day. Here are five:

Developed by researchers 20 years ago, the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test (or “Eyes Test,” for short) showed that people can figure out what someone else is thinking or feeling simply by looking into their eyes. (Not everyone is equally talented, however; women tend to be better at this “mind-reading” than men.) In a recent follow-up study of 89,000 people, researchers found that this talent for mind-reading is rooted in . For women specifically, genetic variants on chromosome 3 (one of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes) are believed to influence and shape cognitive , suggesting that empathy is, in fact, partly genetic.

2. Intuition

That dread in the pit of your stomach when a situation just feels off? That is a gut feeling, and unlike illusions, you can trust it. According to Ph.D.s Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, authors of The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health, our brain and gut are linked by an “extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and that constantly provide feedback.” From letting you know that it’s time for lunch to alerting you that you’re late for a meeting, this “brain-gut axis” helps to physically manifest your internal .

Further, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “ markers” that help us differentiate between right and wrong, which, in turn, can steer us toward making better decisions. Scientists believe our gut’s intuition is powered by the hundreds of neurochemicals it produces to regulate and maintain basic human functions, including , learning, and mood.

3. ESP*

For the majority of us who do not see dead people, ESP, or extrasensory perception, is our true sixth sense. ESP, precognition, and premonition all fall under the larger category of psi (in short, inexplicable science) studied by Cornell University social psychologist Daryl Bem, among others. Based on the results of a series of empirical tests on more than 1,000 subjects, Bern suggests that the human brain possesses a psychic ability to predict what’s coming next. In one experiment, subjects played a computer game in which they guessed which of two curtains hid a sexy image. Their accuracy rate—53.4 percent—was higher than both random chance (50 percent) and for tests of non-sexy or neutral images, suggesting that subjects could subliminally predict the location of the erotic photos.

\* It’s worth noting that, in the years since Bern’s experiments, some within the science community have tried and failed to replicate his results, inciting significant controversy and skepticism regarding his conclusions.

We’ve all seen this classic bit of mind control: A magician invites unsuspecting audience members onto the stage, whispers a few words of hocus pocus, then snaps his fingers. The next thing you know, everyone is quacking like a duck or hopping on one foot until he snaps his fingers again. Now imagine that such hypnosis could take place in the doctor’s office—with even more mesmerizing results. Clinical is considered to be an effective method for treating conditions such as phobias, , and . In one groundbreaking study by researchers at the University of Montreal, test subjects under hypnosis submerged their hands in very hot water or room-temperature water. Some of the participants were warned that they would experience pain, but that it wouldn’t bother them very much. When all of them put their hands into the water, brain scans revealed that those who had been primed for minimal pain actually showed less pain-processing activity in their brains. Some argue that hypnosis produces only a effect, but that doesn’t make the results any less real, or any less amazing.

We Are Easily Fooled by Magic

There’s a reason why David Copperfield is a multimillionaire and why David Blaine still amazes audiences 20 years after his first TV special: People love magic. And even if they don’t think they love magic, they are still certainly susceptible to being tricked. One recent experimental psychology study found that one-third of people were convinced by a magician that an object they had never seen had disappeared. Illustrating how our expectations can overpower our senses, this psychological magic trick employed the magician’s favorite tool: misdirection.

Participants watched a series of five videos. The first four included a magician doing something with a visible object, such as a cloth, coin, or poker chip. The first, second, and fourth videos featured a magic trick with the item, while the third did not feature a trick, so the viewer could clearly differentiate between whether something was or wasn’t “magic.” In the fifth video, however, there was no visible object, yet the magician still mimed making something disappear. After watching this fifth video, 32 percent of viewers claimed to have seen something disappear, with 11 percent of them claiming to know what that object was. According to study author Matthew Tompkins, “the expectation [to see an object] is so vivid that it can actually be mistaken for a real object.”

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