Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
magician levitates a woman

How Illusionism Helps Us Develop Cognitive Capacities


Theatrical magic is a kind of funfair for the adult mind and is where we learn about the laws of the world.

Illusionism is a magnificent source of learning for the human mind. As we mature, our behavior is based on a series of predictions on how life will develop around us as we interact with our surroundings. Almost all of the time, our expectations of the physical laws of reality are matched by reality itself, and that makes us feel secure on this planet, it reaffirms us. We know, for example, that something solid cannot pass through a wall, or that objects will fall if we let go of them. And that is necessary for survival, although it is also necessary to leave behind what we take for granted and let the mind wander.

Acts of magic serve to challenge all kinds of expectations regarding how things should be. Throughout the centuries, conjurers have learnt to perform acts that are perceived as a violation of the laws of physics and logic and as a result leave audiences stunned. Even the least sensitive of audience members can feel a kind of infantile awe in front of a talented magician. And the fact that magic is so captivating for all could be explained by a new study that researched how babies react to their own expectations being shattered.

 Researchers Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigensonm of Johns Hopkins University came up with the idea that the shattering of our expectations about the world is a special learning opportunity. Previous studies had shown that babies continue looking for longer when their expectations are challenged (for example, if a ball appears to pass through a wall). But what was not known is the fact that babies increasing their interest in objects that do not behave as they should has a cognitive benefit.

In the study, 110 eleven-month-old babies were put to the test in a magnificent series of experiments that included objects that appeared to challenge the laws of ‘normality.’ A series of toy cars drove through walls and others crashed into the same wall (among a series of other possible and impossible scenarios). Then, the scientists showed the babies all the toys gathered together: Those that had violated the laws of reality identified with a particular color, and those that had behaved normally. All the babies chose the former to test their magical capabilities.

They took the cars that had driven through walls and they repeatedly struck them against the same wall to investigate how it had been done, ignoring the ‘normal’ cars. The children adapted their exploration to the type of violation of the laws of reality that they witnessed (if the car had flown they threw it to see how it had flown). This disassociation indicates that babies were not reacting randomly to surprising scenarios, but that they were systematically putting their surroundings to the test, perhaps in the same way that scientists do when they are left perplexed before a piece of unexpected information. Furthermore, they completely ignored the cars that behaved ‘normally’.


But what happens when adults are faced with the unexpected?

The act of magic is one of the few experiences we have that still feeds our capacity for amazement. And although we may know that what is happening before our eyes is no more than a trick (a word that justifies anything that we are unable to initially decipher), we are still left open-mouthed. Now, after this study focused on babies we can assume that conjuring is also a unique moment for learning. When we see a good conjuring act we are left in incognito; there is something there to explain, to investigate.

Illusionism is a brief respite from the rational laws of cause and effect, and magic lets us into a recreational space for those rational abilities. The field for babies is immense because magic occurs every day in their process of familiarizing themselves with the world, but for us we are left with this: the act of magic.

The interesting thing is that there is nothing magic about magic tricks. They are entirely created by natural means. There is a popular belief that magicians hide their methods by using speed. But it is false that “the hand is faster than the eye.” The majority of maneuvers are carried out at normal speed. Instead of relying on speed, the success of an effect usually lies in the diversion of the audience’s attention. A diversion that is sometimes physical and sometimes, when the magician is talented, psychological. Our mind is malleable and able to be manipulated like the tangible reality that we take for granted. If a conjurer can maneuver with our cognitive capacity to the extent that he becomes invisible or can pass through a wall, what can we not learn to manipulate ourselves in our own illusionist minds?

Related Articles