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article imageReview: Skepticism for the digital age? Exhibition explores perception Special

By Tim Sandle     Jun 7, 2019 in Science
London - What can magic and conjuring tell us about the human mind? Have we moved on from Victorian times and now sit in a more rationale world, or can technology still alter our perceptions and memories? A new exhibition explores these themes.
The exhibition is called 'Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic' and it is running at the Wellcome Collection in London, U.K.
The exhibition explores how our biases affect our perception and whether our senses can be hacked. This includes the early days on magicians, mentalists, and spirit mediums, and takes the visitor forward to more recent times of modern media, digital technology and fake news.
A statue of a man suspended from the ceiling  part of the perception-themed exhibition at the Wellco...
A statue of a man suspended from the ceiling, part of the perception-themed exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.
Taking perception in general, in three short videos Professor Gustav Kahn spells out the shortcomings of perception, reasoning and memory by using simple tabletop magic tricks. The psychology reveals that we are not all that observant, or as smart or as good at remembering things as we think we are.
A number of interesting themes are covered, such as whether it is ever ethically correct to deceive someone. This was the subject of a McGill Universality study. Here Canadian researchers created an experiment to study the power of suggestion. For this, they tricked some participants into believing a brain scanner could either read or influence their thoughts. For those who were convinced that the scanner was influencing their thoughts said they felt less control compare to those who thought the scanner was reading their thoughts (in reality all their choices were completely voluntary). The study is published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition ("Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic").
Canadian researchers their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brai...
Canadian researchers their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brain scanner could read thoughts and influence their mind.
The researchers even followed this up by looking at the psychological aspects of magic, in terms of the 'pick a card' trick beloved by many magicians. This study showed how magicians develop an intuitive understanding of which playing cards a spectator is most likely to choose - which boils down to just six cards. This study is called "Perceptual and cognitive characteristics of common playing cards."
The playing cards used to illustrate the psychological study. Most people go for Ace of Hearts  Quee...
The playing cards used to illustrate the psychological study. Most people go for Ace of Hearts, Queen of Hearts, and King of Hearts.
The results demonstrate that rigorous examination of real-world stimuli can provide insight into the perception of ordinary objects, as well as helping researchers understand why magic works in the mind. The human brain has evolved a set of priorities governing how we processes information. The problem is, we can be easily exploited
One of the slogans beamed onto a wall at the Wellcome exhibition  focusing on perception.
One of the slogans beamed onto a wall at the Wellcome exhibition, focusing on perception.
One part of the exhibit includes material from the study 'Opening the minds of American voters'. This relates to work undertaken by Thomas Strandberg from Lund University, and it looked at voter perceptions in the run-up for the 2016 U.S Presidential Election. With the research, study participants’ responses on a survey evaluating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are manipulated from polarized into an open-minded position.
Some of the manipulated poll cards used in the academic exercise to show political expressions can b...
Some of the manipulated poll cards used in the academic exercise to show political expressions can be both stable in the context of everyday life, yet flexible when argumentative processes are engaged.
The aspect of interest is that the participants rarely detected the manipulations and instead accept the manipulated responses as being their own. Furthermore, when asked to defend their positions, the participants generally expressed unequivocal arguments in support of the manipulated position.
Images of the Swedish researchers in the U.S.  assessing how firm voters  opinion actually are.
Images of the Swedish researchers in the U.S., assessing how firm voters' opinion actually are.
The significance of the research is that many voters who take strong, polarized stances on issues can become open to opposing views. This suggests that, in contrast to what many think, voter loyalty is relatively malleable and the majority of voters are open to changing their minds.
Another part of the exhibition looked at fake memories, including a study where images of politicians were altered to show them with different people. When members of the public were shown the manipulated images, a sizable proportion 'recalled them' as true.
The photographs on the left hand side are real  but those on the right hand side are fake. When show...
The photographs on the left hand side are real, but those on the right hand side are fake. When shown to many U.S. citizens, a high proportion recollected that the images of Obama and Bush meeting different people had in fact taken place.
This type of media manipulation ties in with deepfake videos, a subject which Digital Journal has recently explored ("Samsung brings Mona Lisa 'to life' with deepfake AI").
A different area of perception is with the psychology of the supernatural, or why some people believe in things without objective evidence. This has been a long-running area of inquiry by Professor Chris French of the University of London, who focuses on paranormal beliefs and experiences, cognition and emotion.
Video screen at the Wellcome exhibition  where  Psychology  Parapsychology and Pseudoscience  is bei...
Video screen at the Wellcome exhibition, where 'Psychology, Parapsychology and Pseudoscience' is being discussed.
Outside of the media and digital focus, the exhibition features some interesting artifacts. One example is a supernatural detection kit used by Maurice Grosse, who explored the case of the Enfield poltergeist (which has been turned into a television series and was the basis of the movie The Conjuring 2.
A poltergeist detection kit  used during the 1970s by paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse.
A poltergeist detection kit, used during the 1970s by paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse.
There are also objects like a Victorian era box for giving the illusion of sawing someone in half:
There are many sawing tricks with significant differences in their basic effect. This picture is of ...
There are many sawing tricks with significant differences in their basic effect. This picture is of one set-up from the Victorian era.
And various props like musical hall ear posters:
Poster for the American stage magician  also known as Carter the Great. Among the highlights of Cart...
Poster for the American stage magician, also known as Carter the Great. Among the highlights of Carter's stage performances were the classic "sawing a woman in half" illusion (an elaborate surgical-themed version with "nurses" in attendance), making a live elephant disappear and "cheating the gallows", where a shrouded Carter would vanish, just as he dropped at the end of a hangman's noose.
Given the rise of fake news, an exhibition like this is very relevant to our times and it instills a dose of skepticism, which is probably no bad thing. The exhibition 'Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic' runs at the Wellcome Collection in London, until September 15, 2019.
More about Perception, Memory, Beliefs, Myth, Magic
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