Ways of Not Seeing

About 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to study coin magic with the magician Al Schneider who has a singular approach to magic theory and practice. Al studied physics at University and he tells a story of performing a trick for two fellow physics students.

Al picked a coin up from the bed he was sitting on. At least that’s what his friends thought. In fact, he had left the coin on the bed and shifted his body so his friends couldn’t see it anymore. He then pretended to drop the coin into his other hand. He squeezed this hand, then slowly opened it to show that the coin had vanished. The friends were amazed but being physics students decided to apply hard logic to the situation.

“What do we know?”

“We know he picked up the coin.” They agreed on this and so were already hopelessly lost.

“Then he dropped the coin into the other hand.”

“Yes, and it landed heads up.”

“No, it was tails up.”

They had found something they disagreed on and they then convinced themselves that this anomaly was a clue. A piece of data that could help them understand.

Think about this. They had convinced themselves so strongly that the coin was in his hand that when he dropped it into the other hand they saw it, and they saw it so clearly they could remember which way up it was.

Did they imagine it at the time they saw it or did they confabulate afterward? It is impossible to know for sure but my experience suggests that they could easily have seen it at the time. I know this because I have given many people similar illusions over the years.

Matthew L. Tompkins, a doctoral researcher in psychology at Oxford, has conducted a study in which he performs a similar illusion. He recruited 420 participants to watch five short, silent videos and then report on what they saw.

In three of the videos, respondents watched him perform some simple magic tricks involving common objects and always including a brass cup. For instance, he would take a crayon from the cup, break it in two, then make it whole again – a magical restoration. He would vanish an object. He would make an object appear from thin air.

In one video, the subjects watched a non-magical action such as Tompkins eating the crayon, or wearing a poker chip as a monocle. If they saw these simple actions as “magical” then they were not paying attention or perhaps misunderstanding what they had been asked to do.

The final video showed Tompkins pantomiming the action of taking an object from the cup and then going through the motions of making the non-existent object disappear. Exactly the same technique that Al Schneider had talked about and one that is very familiar to magicians.

32 percent of people in the study were fooled by this final trick. Just like Al’s physics student friends, they saw an object that literally did not exist. Tomkins calls this the Phantom Vanish Illusion. A phantom object vanishes.

This is unsurprising to experienced magicians but is a strong and interesting experiment in psychology as some psychologists still wrongly believe that healthy sober people can never “see” a non-existent object.

When I perform on stage, I have a routine where I ask everyone in the audience to imagine a ring on one of their fingers. I explicitly ask them to try to see the ring as clearly as they can on that finger and to imagine a number of details about the ring, its color, weight, shape, and style.

After the routine, I revisit this moment of imagination. I ask how many people saw a ring; around 90% of the audience will raise their hand. I then ask where they saw the ring; of those who saw a ring around 80% will say they saw it in they mind. They will often say, “In my mind’s eye”. The other 20% will say they saw the ring on their finger and they will often point to the exact spot. Both groups are surprised at the other group’s experience. We tend to think that there is only one way of imagining something, the way that we do it. It is surprising to find that other’s can do it a different way.

It also raises some interesting questions. Can we learn other ways? Is there something valuable in practicing other ways of imagining? I believe the answer to both these questions is a yes.

But what of the people who did not see a ring at all? Well, a performance is not a scientific experiment and an audience is generally less constrained in their actions and thoughts than a subject in an experiment. They may have been focussed on something else, thinking about how I did the last effect, what they want for supper (I hope my performances are engaging enough that their minds aren’t wandering in this way of course).

They may also have aphantasia, a recently named, rare, and little-understood condition in which a person is not able to picture things in their mind. Can this conditions be cured? Should it be cured or is it just another way of imagining that we don’t yet understand? Can people with aphantasia be fooled into “seeing” an imaginary object?

2 thoughts on “Ways of Not Seeing

  • An interesting (thought) experiment. I introduced me to one of my two acquaintances with aphantasia. Perhaps you could see whether they struggle with a series of illusions involving more or less imaginative effort?

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