Richard Wiseman closed this year’s Brighton Science Festival, on Sunday 3rd March, with a spectacular show of magic, jokes, illusions, and psychology. Although he is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, he wasn’t always a psychologist. He started out as a stage magician and so he kicked off the evening with the first magic trick he ever performed – a simple handkerchief manipulation.
It might seem off-topic for a show supposedly about the paranormal, but the methods employed by magicians actually exploit the same kind of psychological phenomena that lead people to believe they’ve experienced the supernatural. When a visual illusion brought the realisation that our senses “construct the world” he got excited by the idea that “experience may not be a wonderful guide to reality”. This sparked his interest in psychology and he now conducts research as well as communicating to the public what modern psychology has revealed about the workings of the human mind.
A simple but effective demonstration of how misdirection is the essence of magic involved revealing how a common sleight-of-hand trick works. In the ‘French drop’ a coin is apparently passed from one hand to another, but is actually dropped into the palm of the original hand. We follow the direction of the magician’s gaze as he looks pointedly at his other hand, far from where the coin really is. Despite showing us exactly how this is done, we all still failed to spot it – time and time again – because it “exploits the normal rules of social attention” and we look where he looks without being conscious of what we’re doing.
The same ‘spotlight of attention’ is responsible for the phenomenon of ‘change blindness’, which Richard exploited in his viral video, the ‘colour-changing card trick’. Our eyes take quick snapshots of parts of the world to build up a scene. Our brain then assumes things that weren’t changing continue unchanged when our attention is focussed – giving the illusion we’re seeing a lot more than we really are. This is only exposed when a scene is suddenly restored to an earlier state, revealing how much changed without us noticing.
He also assaulted our minds with some of the strangest and most effective perceptual illusions around, because they reveal the mind working in even more subtle ways than attention tricks. There was a demonstration of ‘perceptual constancy’ where the context surrounding part of a picture changes what we see, and ‘closure’, where our mind ‘fills in the gaps’, so we see a picture of a scantily-clad woman with the clothing in the picture covered up as completely naked, and so on.
It was a very visual show overall as illusions and magic make for spectacular theatre. At one point however, we were also treated to an auditory illusion in which lyrics on a screen dictated what we heard – with hilarious results. It all goes to show, that in certain circumstances, to a certain extent, we perceive what we expect to perceive. This is especially true when it comes to faces. Many psychologists believe our brains are ‘hard-wired’ for recognising faces and as a result we’re prone to seeing them even when they’re not there. This explains both how often ‘ghostly’ faces appear in photographs and the tendency to see faces in funny photos of inanimate objects.
Richard is a master showman, competent at working a crowd and the evening was very much a show, brimming with audience participation, wonder, guffaws and gasps. Personally though, I would have liked to see some deeper explanation: he never really went into depth as to why many of the visual illusions work or what they tell us about how our senses work.
I should probably come clean and admit that I was a perceptual researcher for years, and so maybe not the best person to review a gig like this – I’d seen many of the illusions before and know how and why they work. Friends I went with also made comments along the lines of it being “science-light” however, so I obviously wasn’t the only one. That being said, the audience was thoroughly entertained, and I’m sure virtually everyone was convinced by his central point: that some of our strangest experiences are probably just the consequences of our even stranger minds…