New Study Finds People Know More Than They Think


The art of magic plays on the human powers of perception, but a new study finds that the brain has its own tricks: People observe more than they think.

The research was presented November 12 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. In it, Luis Martinez of CSIC- Miguel Hernandez University in Spain and his team “read minds” with the Princess Card Trick, an act invented by magician Henry Hardin in 1905. Participants in the study mentally picked out a playing card from a group of six cards, which then disappeared. When a second group of cards appeared, the researchers had amazingly figured out which card a person had in mind and removed it. Very few people caught the trick: All of the cards in the second set were different, not just the card that people had chosen. This trick is well-known to confuse the masses, even via the Internet a magician’s sleight of hand can make it seem as though he/she legitimately “read your mind”.

A few moments after viewing the two panels of cards, volunteers were asked which of two new cards was present in the first set of cards. None of the volunteers could actually recall which card was present. Despite claiming that they had no idea, when they were forced to choose, people got the right answer around 80 percent of the time. “People say they don’t know, but they do,” Martinez said. “The information is still there, and we can use it unconsciously if we are forced to.”

Working With Objects

To determine whether this unconscious memorization works for real objects as opposed to just cards, Martinez and his team performed a very similar experiment with pictures of men’s faces. A very similar kind of short-term memory helped people pick out which face they had seen before, even when the volunteers didn’t realize that they knew the correct answer.

These unconscious, short-term memories are unpredictable. If the scientists talked to the volunteers while they were performing the trick, the ability to pick out the card that had been present got much worse. (Magicians may make sure to keep up a bit of noise for this reason.) And if the scientists unveiled the trick, participants didn’t perform any better than chance at identifying the card.

Neuroscience and Magic

Neuroscientists have researched magic before – often in awe of how the human mind reacts to experiencing something that it knows is physically impossible or has had no witness of before. Magicians have had a very advanced grip on the human psyche for years, albeit probably unknowingly. They are experts are bending perception, though they themselves probably don’t know the areas of the brains that they’re manipulating with their dazzling tricks – it would seem quite unlikely that they do since neuroscientists are just now beginning to catch up with what goes on in a person’s mind while watching a magic trick.

Let’s just hope that neuroscientists don’t advance their “magic” studies too fast, lest we lose all enjoyment in watching magic tricks.