Our brain’s simulation of the external world, our conscious experience, is often wrong. Optical illusions demonstrate how our perception of objects can be mistaken. Analogously, magic tricks are cognitive illusions that vividly illustrate how our perception and understanding of events can go awry. Thanks to recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists we know under what circumstances magic tricks are effective and how we can get better at working out how they are done. The psychological principles at work are general ones, so understanding them can help us be appropriately skeptical of our observations and to reduce error.
Ashley Barnett is a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He teaches critical thinking and researchers how people can improve their critical thinking skills. Most recently he worked on an experimental course for IARPA, the main research body of the US intelligence community. His online course is available at www.improvingreasoning.com . He also performs as a stage magician – see www.yourmindonmagic.com.