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A message from magic to science: seeing how the brain can be tricked may strengthen our thinking

Henrik Ísterblom, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Marten Scheffer, Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, Wageningen University
Frances R Westley, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, University of Waterloo
Miguel L. van Esso, College of Agriculture, Buenos Aires University
John Miller, Gray Jay Graphics, Wisconsin
Jordi Bascompte, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich


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Scientific discoveries rely on creative thinking, and several authors have explored similarities in and differences between creativity in the sciences and that in the arts. Here we explore possible ways in which science can learn from the arts, focusing specifically on experiences derived from the art of magic and on the limitations of human cognition. Generations of stage magicians or “illusionists” have made sophisticated use of the weaknesses in human systems of perception and interpretation. We highlight three important principles of magic tricks, including: (1) the audience see what it expects, (2) it is blind to all but the focus of attention, and (3) ideas spring predictably from a primed mind. These principles highlight a number of important tendencies, which we argue are shortcomings in the ability of scientists to perceive the world, and which scientists need to be aware of. Consciously addressing these shortcomings may help scientists improve their creativity, and will strengthen their capacity to address complex and global challenges.

Key words

art; cognitive capacity; cognitive limitations; conclusion errors; confirmation bias; creative thinking; illusion; illusionist; inattentive blindness; magic; magician; priming; science; scientific discovery; selective attention

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087