cognitive science

The Science of Thinking

Many people are quick to offer their explanations for why magic tricks "work"; why people of average intelligence — and in fact many well above average intelligence — aren't able to decipher the method behind them.

The main reason is simply information a-symmetry. If the magician knows something you don't (in this case one single something out of all the possible somethings that could be known) then you are at a significant disadvantage. It's the same reason that encrypting and decrypting coded messages is much easier when you know the method of encoding and the key than when you don't.

But the other reason is this. Derek Mueller, the creator of Veritasium, describes how your brain has two methods of operating; "System 1" and "System 2". 

While there is no hard line distinction, what we largely think of as "intelligence" and "problem solving" lie in "System 2". (Although Daniel Dennett's concept of competence without comprehension certainly needs to be part of that conversation.) But "System 2" spends most of the day dormant, like an iPad with a dark screen, it sits there conserving battery until some stimulus jars it into action.

And that's where the magic happens!

The secrets to most tricks lie in the space where your serious problem-solving intellect hasn't had a chance to switch on yet. Many tricks have as a selling point of their modus operandi "the work is done before the audience is even aware the trick has started."

But knowing that isn't of much help. Because, as described in the video, maintaining that level of analytical alertness requires energy and concentration — both scarce resources which can't be deployed continuously. Your brain yearns to turn them off, so after a while the iPad screen goes dark. 

So when the next magic trick begins, you're ready to begin the process all over again.