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Many human functions are associated with the ability to recognize objects and judge their qualities based on previous experience. Many of these processes are associated with attention. Failure to trace changes in items, discussions, or other situations may result in a low accuracy of judgement. The inability to focus one’s attention on significant happenings is used by magicians and those who perform magic tricks. This paper discusses the magic trick phenomena, as well as the aspect of attention affected by it.
The YouTube video called Color Changing Card Trick features an experiment associated with human attention (Quirkology, 2012). A man shows a pack of cards, all of which have blue backs. An assistant then pulls out one card that is shown to still have a blue back, while all others now have red ones. As explained in the video, the trick, in fact, is not in the cards at all. The camera focus changes along with the sequence of the experiment, showing either the whole scene or only parts of it. Details such as the performers’ clothes and background color change, yet it is difficult for viewers to notice since all of their attention is on the cards.
The comment section below the video proves that almost none of the viewers detected the gradual change of setting in the video. However, it is easy to recognize changes the second time the video is watched because the whole process has already been explained. This experiment demonstrates that people tend to be very attentive to a certain object and ignore the surrounding environment that may sometimes play an important role in the outcome of the situation. This fact has much to do with the theory of attention as a resource.
There are several theories that seek to explain the phenomena of attention. One of the most logical opinions regarding this subject is provided by Kahneman’s capacity model of attention (Friedenberg & Silverman, 2015, p. 102). According to this theory, attention is a resource like all other features of a human body. Despite this resource being mental in nature, it is measurable and has its limits. The amount of attention that can be used at any specific time is variable and is affected by various environmental factors.
In the case of the card trick video, viewers also possess a limited amount of attention. They watch the cards themselves and thus are not able to notice changes in the environment. In fact, the principle of all magic tricks is to have the participant concentrated on the object itself. A game with three cups and an object under one of them holds the viewer’s attention solely on those cups, which makes it easy to change other things that go unnoticed.
The human brain cannot process two different packages of information at the same time; instead, people have to receive and evaluate pieces of information one after another. In a situation with limited time, people tend to make more mistakes. For instance, there is a famous test designed by John Ridley Stroop that is based on reading out loud the text of a color word instead of the color it is written in (Weiner & Craighead, 2010, p.1712). Different things around us have to be processed by various brain parts, which becomes a difficult task, especially if one is closely watching only one element instead of spreading attention across several of them at the same time.
I have had a similar experience as the video discussed above, just as many other viewers have. In my case, I tried to build a logical explanation regarding the sequence of events shown by the performers because I suspected that there would be a point when they had to do something suspicious that would identify the nature of the trick. However, I also have other examples with the opposite structure.
For instance, when someone who I believe to be an authority, like a leader or a friend, is explaining a complicated cause-and-effect sequence, I tend to follow the story without noticing inaccurate or irrelevant details. This often happens because I cannot do two things at the same time, so I cannot closely follow the story and also analyze whether all facts are correct. This issue mostly concerns long pieces of spoken information, when there is no possibility to go back and check the correspondence of certain elements. Besides, I often concentrate on conclusions, and it is difficult to process the whole path when there are many elements related to the story.
Magic tricks are based on the unique features of human psychology. They rely on the inability of people to pay attention to and process several packages of information at a time, especially when viewers are focused on just one of them. Attention is a resource that has a limit despite its non-material nature. The presence of several story lines and numerous facts make it difficult to judge the credibility of the whole event.
Friedenberg, J., & Silverman, G. (2015). Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Study of Mind (3rd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Quirkology. (2012). Color changing card trick. Web.
Weiner, I. B., & Craighead, E. (2010). The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology (Vol.4). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.