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Page last updated at 06:29 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 07:29 UK
Now you see it - now you don't


Dr Gustav Kuhn demonstrates his magical psychological experiment. Can you spot the sleight of hand?

If you have ever lost your keys - only to discover they are lying on the table in front of you - then you know how easily your mind can be deceived.

It may come as little consolation, but the mind's capacity to look without seeing is the basis of hundreds of magic tricks.

It is also the subject of a recent psychological study.

How is a magician able to manipulate what a person can and cannot see?

"Magicians are the masters of manipulating people's attention," says Dr Gustav Kuhn, a psychologist from the University of Durham who has just completed the study looking at the phenomena.

Right before my eyes

Dr Kuhn's research was inspired by new findings in the science of perception.

"If you look around the room you feel aware of everything around you.

"But recent research has found that you are actually aware of very limited information," he says.

Dr Kuhn, a magician in his spare time, used a simple experiment to demonstrate what most magicians already know.

He made a film of a magic trick in which he makes a cigarette disappear by dropping it onto his lap.

Even though their eyes are open they don't see anything
Jamie Raven, Magician
By tracking participants' eye movements while they watch the film, he found that their eyes often looked directly at the cigarette dropping, but when asked later they had no idea they had seen it happen.

"People have been looking in the right direction and haven't seen it at all," explains Dr Kuhn.

"In order to be able to see something you have to be able to attend to it."

Blinded by magic

Magician Jamie Raven says the research findings are "absolutely right".

He says that although a mastery of the technical side of a trick is vital, it is only through a sound understanding of human nature that magic tricks work.

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"When you tell people you are a magician you are laying down a challenge. You're telling them 'I am going to lie to you. I am going to fool you in a minute'.

"And because of this they will be watching your hands relentlessly. It's human nature to want to try to not be fooled.

"They are concentrating so hard that they become blind. It's like tunnel vision. Even though their eyes are open they don't see anything.

"You can control people - when they are looking, where they are looking. And we condition them to think that what we do is fair."

Attention grabbers

Aside from ruining the fun at a children's party, the knowledge gained may have future applications.

Dr Kuhn says that understanding how we can look directly at something and yet fail to see it should be able to help prevent traffic accidents and improve computer displays.

But most importantly the ability to attract people's attention is already being used without our knowing it.

"The advertising industry is already doing this. Media people are already doing this," he says.

"There are vast amounts of money being spent on research about how you can capture people's attention to sell them products.

"The only way to fight that is to spread understanding of the processes involved."

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