Magic Trick Offers Insight Into Neuroscience

Neuroscientists studied the classic "cups and balls" illusion performed by Teller.
Stephen L. Macknik, Barrow Neurological Institute

By studying a magic trick that has been around for thousands of years, neuroscientists have shed light on human attention and visual systems -- as well as on the trick, itself.

"Magicians, in particular, are very intellectual performance artists. They are very interested in the mind and how behavior happens," Dr. Stephen Macknik, director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute(BNI), told Discovery News. "What scientists are doing when we study perception is pretty much the same thing, except we're using the scientific method."

The hope is that magicians' intuitive insight could help instruct the field of neuroscience and perhaps, even be applied in medicine to help people with attention deficit issues.

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In their study, recently published in the inaugural issue of PeerJ, the researchers focused upon a famous trick by a pair of very famous magicians. Penn & Teller's 10-year run at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino has made them one of the longest-running and most beloved acts in Las Vegas history.

Their trick, "Cups and Balls," is a classic illusion performed by Roman magicians as far back as 2,000 years ago when gladiators still battled in the Colosseum.

While the trick has many derivatives, the most common uses three brightly colored balls and three opaque cups. Using sleight-of-hand, the magician seemingly makes the balls pass through the bottoms of cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear and reappear elsewhere or turn into entirely different objects. In Penn & Teller's case, that different object is often a potato.

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