As intellectually mature adults, we know that when we see a magic trick successfully pulled off, it’s not really magic that gets us, but some sort of trick that makes us think we’re seeing something that didn’t––and couldn’t––really happen. Knowing this, though, doesn’t make a magic trick any less entertaining or amazing. So why can’t we see through the tricks and know what’s really going on
The answer is that our brains aren’t really set up to handle perceptual ambiguity. When we see the magician make particular motions with his hands or arms, we interpret his intentions and categorize them based on past experiences. A good magician uses a recognizable motion to do something unexpected.
Our brains can’t multitask very well. So even though we know intellectually, for example, that it’s impossible for the squishy balls to disappear out of the magician’s hand and appear inside a closed box on the table, we aren’t able to reconcile the fact that the balls have indeed been transferred from the hand to the box.
Our brains rely on visual cues, sometimes referred to as the Gestalt laws of vision, to make sense of what we see. We expect continuation and rational organization, and when those concepts are missing our brains can’t figure out why.
Find out more about how magicians trick our brains in this article from Scientific American.