The Science of Visual Deception

You’re pretty sharp and there isn’t a whole lot that gets by you. You are focused and pride yourself on your attention to details. While others are lost in their own head, you are noticing exactly what is going on around you. Or are you? In Brain Games: Focus Pocus host, Jason Silva explores the complicated mechanisms of how our brain catches and misses details. You may be surprised by all the things you miss.

Now You See it, Now You Don’t

Studies show that taking in multiple details is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible. In a famous study, people were asked to count how many times three basketball players wearing white shirts passed a ball. After about 30 seconds, a person wearing a gorilla suit walks slowly on to the court, faced the camera, thumped her chest and walked away. Half the viewers missed her, even a few who looked right at her. Do you think you would have noticed the gorilla on the court in this landmark scientific experiment? If you think you would have done better than the participants in this study, consider the world of magic. Most of us have been floored by the abilities of a street magician to make appear and reappear. In some cases entire crowds have been fooled by a magician’s expertise in human attention and awareness. Take for example, David Copperfield who in 1983 made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” for a live audience of about 20 people and a nation of people watching on television. How did he do it? Most likely by taking advantage of the way people focus.

Take this, for example. Stare intently at the blinking dot at the center of the moving image… and be amazed as the yellow dots disappear before your very eyes!


The Focus in Hocus Pocus

When performing sleight of hand tricks, magicians take advantage of our limited range of focus. The mind had a tremendous amount of work to do when taking in the details of our surroundings. It may miss details outside of our direct focus or even make up details because of an anticipated result. A magician throwing a ball in the air several times can make the ball seem to disappear on the last toss, simply by not tossing it. The brain is now anticipating the movement, imagines the ball is there and when you realize the ball is not actually there it has “disappeared.” Magicians are also able to make objects large and small vanish by concealing the object while your focus is moved away from the area of concealment. Perhaps you are so focused on the right hand, that you don’t notice the quick and almost imperceptible movement of the left as the magician conceals the object. Magic is often about taking advantage of our inability to focus.

Here, Gentleman Thief Apollo Robbins shows us some tricks about focus:

So how did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty seem to vanish? No one except David Copperfield and his crew are exactly sure, but the theory is that while statue was blocked from view by a curtain and Copperfield gave a monologue, the audience and the stage were on a movable platform that turned imperceptibly. By the time the curtain was dropped, one of the towers that had supported the giant curtain blocked the view of where the statue had been. Do you think you would have noticed that your world was moving? You wouldn’t be the first to miss the obvious if you didn’t!

For more mind-bending fun, tune into the series premiere of Brain Games: Focus Pocus tonight, at 9PM et/pt!