Psychology professor studying magic and the mindset behind it

Magic tricks have always been an intriguing phenomenon, but what is the relationship between human psychology and magic? Ronald Rensink, a professor in the psychology and computer science departments at UBC, has been exploring that question for more than five years.

Rensink was first drawn to the topic after an experiment several years ago pointed to similarities in the ways that magicians can control people's attention as they perform various tricks.

"To see change, you need attention," said Rensink. "[Magicians] control people's attention. They change something, then use certain methods to make sure people don't see the change."

So what magicians do then, Rensink said, is hijack their audience's concentration and create a different reality. For instance, the viewer may be convinced they are seeing something appear and disappear, although that isn't really happening.

"The picture you have of the world is not directly what comes into your eyes," said Rensink. "The picture you experience is a production your brain is putting this together."

Rensink was also part of a study, conducted by researchers from both UBC and McGill University, that looked at the technique of "forcing." In forcing tricks, magicians get participants to pick a specific card they already had in mind while the participants remain oblivious and confident that they picked the card out of their own free will, despite actually having been made to do so.

In a controlled experiment setting in a lab using a computer screen to control the timing, size and colour of the cards, the forcing technique worked 30 per cent of the time, whereas it worked almost 100 per cent of the time when performed by magician Jay Olson, Rensink said.

"Timing [is] a major component [in forcing]," said Rensink. "The memorability of the card, or whether or not people liked a particular card [seemed in the experiment] to have no impact, but showing the [pre-selected] card slightly longer than the rest did." Participants, however, do not notice this time discrepancy.

According to Rensink, experiments like this offer some interesting insights into how magicians control these mechanisms, and provide scientists with learning opportunities.

Rensink believes that the study of magic has much to offer to the field of psychology.

"To learn at what age children develop object permanence, we can use magic tricks," Rensink said. "If the child is surprised when the object disappears, [he/she] has object permanence. If not [surprised], then you know they don't yet."

Secondly, magic tricks can be used to study wonder, and the particular sense of wonder that is unique to people looking at magic tricks. It can be useful in exploring whether or not there are different types of wonder, things that trigger it and the purpose of it.

Rensink also said that studying magic provides avenues to study tricks specifically -- which are a phenomenon in their own right -- as well as to study magic in a general sense. This can lead to creating a taxonomy of different kinds of tricks, which can then be used to compare and build connections among them.