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The Science of Magic

The Science of Magic: How Magic Changes our Expectations About Autism

Over the centuries, magicians have learned how to perform acts that are perceived as defying the laws of nature, and that induce a strong sense of wonder. Many of the techniques used to create these illusions share similarities with topics investigated by psychologists. For example, magicians use misdirection to systematically orchestrate people’s attention so as to manipulate what they see. Misdirection may therefore provide us with valuable insights into visual attention and awareness. Alternatively, magicians may manipulate our perception through the use of illusions, which may provide insights into the effects of top-down processing on perception. In this talk I will draw parallels between magic and science, and demonstrate how these principles can be investigated scientifically. These studies have particularly highlighted the role of the magician’s social cues (i.e., gaze direction) in manipulating attention. I will also present eye-tracking data from the “vanishing ball illusion”, in which the magician’s gaze direction played a pivotal role in creating expectations that resulted in people perceiving an event that never took place.

In the final part I will demonstrate how this approach can be used to investigate atypicalities in visual processing in clinical populations. In the vanishing ball illusion, the magician’s social cues misdirect the audience’s expectations and attention into ‘seeing’ a ball vanish in the air. As individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are less sensitive to social cues, and have superior perception for non-social details, we predicted that they should be less susceptible to the illusion shown in a video-clip. Surprisingly, the opposite result was found, as individuals with ASD were more susceptible to the illusion than a comparison group. Eye-tracking data indicated that subtle temporal delays in allocating attention might explain their heightened susceptibility. Additionally, although ASD individuals showed typical patterns of looking to the magician's face and eyes, they were slower to launch their first saccade to the face, and had difficulty in fixating the fast moving observable ball. Considered together, the results indicate difficulties in the rapid allocation of attention towards both people and moving objects.

Gustav Kuhn completed his PhD at Sussex University in 2003, where he investigated implicit learning of musical structures, supervised by Zoltan Dienes. Towards the end of his PhD he started to collaborate with Michael Land and Benjamin Tatter by exploring the ways in which magicians can misdirect peoples’ attention. This was largely possible since, prior to his academic career, Gustav worked as a professional magician. It was at this point where he discovered the potential of using magic as a method for investigating a wide variety of cognitive processes. The focus of his research then naturally changed toward visual perception. In 2005 Gustav moved to Durham to work on a 1-year post doc investigating attentional capture, after which he was awarded a 3-year Wolfson fellowship enabling him to continue his research on the science of magic and in particular focusing on the way in which our attention is influenced by where others are looking. In 2009 he took up a position as a lecturer at Brunel University where he is currently teaching research methods.


Dr Gustav Kuhn | talks | www


Date and Time:

9 March 2010 at 6:00 pm


1 hour



Psychology Seminar Series, Goldsmiths' College
Richard Hoggart Building
New Cross
SE14 6NW
020 7919 7871

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Additional Information:

SEMINARS ARE FREE and there is no need to book in advance.

Talks are open to all.

They start at 6:10 PM IN ROOM 256, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths.

For further information, contact Chris French email: c.french@gold.ac.uk).

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