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Magic trick study illustrates the fallibility of human perception

People generally assume that when they witness something, their perception of what happened is accurate. However, the human brain can sometimes be tricked.

This capacity for the brain to get tricked is what stage magic takes advantage of. Magic tricks, as a recent study indicates, can sometimes even trick people into seeing things that aren’t actually present.

In the study, researchers had the participants, a group of 420 individuals, watch three sets of silent videos. The first featured a person doing some basic magic tricks. In the second, the person performed some non-magic-trick actions with objects. In the third, the person made hand motions commonly associated with magic tricks, but with no objects in his hands.

The participants watched the videos in the order they are listed above. After viewing each “trick”, the participants were asked to write down what they saw.

It was in the responses to the third video set that things got interesting. Nearly a third of the participants (32 percent) said they saw the person in the video make something disappear in this video, despite the fact the person didn’t ever have any actual object in his hands in the video. And around a third of those who said they saw something disappear in this video indicated seeing a specific type of object.

The study illustrates that magic tricks can “hack” a person’s perceptual processes to get them to observe things other than what is actually happening.

Why are we discussing this on a criminal defense blog? Well, there is one particular aspect of criminal proceedings where the perceptive abilities of humans play a big role, eyewitness testimony.

The study illustrates that a person’s perception of what happened in a given event can sometimes be thrown off. And while magic tricks involve the intentional hacking of the brain, it could be possible for things a person encounters as part of their everyday activities to inadvertently trigger some of the same effects.

Given the fallibility of human perception, there can be situations in which eyewitness testimony presented in a criminal case is not as reliable as the eyewitness thinks it is and the prosecution presents it as. This is why careful analysis of eyewitness testimony and whether any particular factors were present that could significantly affect its reliability can be such a key thing when mounting a defense against criminal charges.

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