Performing Magic Tricks To Animals Could Help Us Learn How They Think, Scientists Say

Scrub jays are one of the animals known to perform their own version of magic tricks, distracting those that might steal their caches by creating illusions of hiding food elsewhere. Hayley Crews/Shutterstock

Magicians have probably been performing their illusions to non-human animals as long as we've had both pets and sleight of hand, but the rise of video cameras means we can all now witness their reactions, giving a new meaning to "monkey magic". Some scientists think we could understand the similarities and differences in thought processes across species this way.

University of Cambridge PhD student Elias Garcia-Pelegrin makes the case for using magic to study animal thinking in Science

“Magic effects capitalize on our ability to remember what happened and our ability to anticipate what will happen next,” Garcia-Pelegrin and colleagues write. Therefore, “using magical frameworks elicits ways to investigate complex cognitive abilities such as mental time travel (i.e., remembering the past and anticipating the future).”

For this reason, the study of human responses to magic has become a growing branch of psychology in recent years. It might become even more useful for understanding minds we currently know much less about than our own.

The paper notes we need to be careful about anthropomorphizing the apparent amazement and wonder popular videos reveal in primates when an item disappears or does something unexpected. Nevertheless, the authors think these responses justify further research.

With both animals and babies, surprise can be measured through the length of time spent looking at something. Anything unexpected, unless thought to pose an immediate danger, attracts much longer stares than familiar items. So far, the authors note, there have been no systematic studies using length of gaze time to discover whether animals are deceived by the same magic tricks that fool humans. If so, it would indicate similarities in the “perceptive blind spots and cognitive road-blocks” magicians exploit to fool their audiences.

Take the vanishing ball trick. “In humans, the illusion’s success appears to be reliant on the spectator’s expectation of the ball’s movement and the social cues elicited by the magician,” the authors write. Which animals have similar expectations that the ball, for example, will travel upwards after it appears to be thrown?

Illuminating as such research might be, the authors warn it will be challenging because it relies on subjects paying the magician lots of attention. Dogs aside, most animals don't think we're that important. “Engaging the undivided attention of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, is one of the major challenges of implementing experimental designs on apes,” they note.

The use of illusion and distraction is not unique to humans, however. Chimpanzees will stop looking at something they want apparently in the hope of tricking rivals into focusing elsewhere. Magpies and jays have been seen pretending to hide their food in one location, while really storing it somewhere else, hoping their slight-of-claw will deceiving potential thieves. 

The fact that corvids practice deception of their own, and their tendency to closely observe humans, might make them the best place to start such research, the paper suggests.

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