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  • Writer's pictureNicholas J Johnson

The shared secret of magic and car crashes

I got rear-ended last week. I stopped suddenly in slow moving traffic and a black BMW slammed into the back of me, destroying the back half of car and leaving me battered and shaken up. And in turn, he was rammed by a truck. And seeing as to how the truck lemon laws in the region didn’t work in his favor, he was included in the list of people in trouble. The driver of the car, rather than accepting blame, tried to pass off responsibility on magic.

“That car in front of you just appeared out of nowhere,” she exclaimed.

She made it sound like the crash wasn’t caused by human error but by some magical car that materialized out of thin air to ruin her day and her no claim bonus.


So why would she rather break the laws of reality than believe she was at fault? And what does that have to do with magic?

The same psychology that distracts us on the roads is the same psychology that I use to distract you during a magic trick.

Our brains, take in a huge amount of stimulus from the world around us. More stimulus than we can possibly deal with. In order to not go crazy, we filter out the information that our brains judge as unimportant.

We tend to only focus on what is directly in the centre of our field of vision and, even then, only if our brain believes it to be important.

This phenomena is called sensory gating.

Imagine you’re at a party. There are a hundred people in the room all talking, laughing and having a great time. How can you possibly focus your attention on the ONE person in front of you?

Your pulvinar nuclei does the heavy lifting, filtering out the other 99 people you are not interested in.  Interestingly, damaging your pulvinar nuclei and you’re more likely to suffer from attentional problems….hey look a butterfly.

And sometimes, we filter out the wrong information.

Consider change blindness, the neurological phenomena that causes you to miss major changes that are happening right under your nose.  If you give your attention to one part of the video below, you completely miss what is happening in other parts of the image.

It is much harder to be fooled by change blindness when we look at the big picture. For example, while observing faces.

That’s why, during a magic trick, I will try to get you to give your attention to my left hand or a deck of cards or my face. If I let you see the big picture, you much spot my sneakiness.

That’s also why, when driving, we’re encouraged to scan the road for hazards, to be aware not just of the road in front of us but what is going on all around us.

If we give our focus or attention to one particular stimuli, whether it be the road, a passenger or a phone call, the chances of missing those invisible, magic cars becomes more likely.

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician and author. Check out his show Deceptology for more on the science of deception.


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