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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

The Magic of Inattentional Blindness

Magicians have amazed us with their ability to make things disappear right before our very eyes! These feats of magic have captured the attention of neuro-researchers. Studies of visual perception have demonstrated how little people see when we are not paying attention, a phenomenon known as ‘inattentional blindness’. Psychologist Brian Scholl, PhD of Yale University stated that “In contrast with a lot of research on visual perception, these studies are truly surprising for both scientists and laypeople because they are so at odds with how we assumed vision worked.”

Change Blindness

Beginning in the 1970s researchers began to recognize a phenomenon called ‘change blindness’. ( Change blindness is the failure to notice an obvious change. People often fail to detect change in their visual field, as long as the change occurs during an eye movement or when people’s view is otherwise interrupted.

Inattentional Blindness

Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice the existence of an unexpected item. This the inability of people to detect unexpected objects to which they are not paying attention. This is likely to occur if part of your attention is diverted to secondary tasks.

It is difficult to reduce the risk of inattentional blindness, as it is an unnoticed consequence of our adaptive ability to defend against information overload.

There is an excellent example that researchers use in explaining inattentional blindness. This is called the ‘gorilla test’. You might be aware of this experiment. This experiment was carried out by Christopher Chabris, Ph.D., and Daniel Simons, Ph.D. Researchers asked the participants to watch a video of people tossing a basketball, and observers were told to count the number of passes or to keep track of the numbers of throws versus bounce passes. Afterward, the participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual while watching the video. Across all of the tests, approximately 50% of the participants reports seeing nothing out of the ordinary.

There was something very odd that did happen. A woman dressed in a gorilla suit strolled through the scene, turned to the camera, thumped her chest and walked away. It surely seems impossible that participants missed this event, but their attention was focused elsewhere and on a demanding task, the gorilla basically became invincible.

Instead of focusing on every tiny detail in the world around us, we tend to concentrate on things that are most important, relying on our existing schemas to ‘fill in the blanks’. Our cognitive, attentional and processing resources are limited, this allows us to dedicate them to what matters most, while allowing us to have complete, seamless experiences.’

Here is a more relevant example: You decide to make a phone call while driving through heavy traffic. You fail to notice that the traffic light turned red, so you run the stop light and end up getting a traffic ticket.

The Science of Magic

Magic has finally emerged from the entertainment label and now investigates the perplexing area of mind study – perception. Our every day life is continually through episodes of inattentional blindness and change blindness. Namely, something happens in front of us but because our attention is elsewhere, we don’t register having seen it. When a change occurs gradually it is referred to as change blindness. If the change occurs abruptly, it’s called inattentional blindness.

Misdirection is a standard technique of the magician’s palette and demonstrates the perceptual rift between looking at something and attending to it. Commonly thought to be about speed (isn’t the hand quicker than the eye?) misdirection is actually more about leading us to focus only on a particular area. When a magician throws a ball into the air – and it vanishes – the trick works because the audience is following the magician’s gaze – not his hand. The magician has misdirected your gaze into following his and deploys a combination of intentional and change blindness.

Magic, which has exploited such aspects of the visual for centuries, offers us a framework to explore perception in an intriguing way and the potential for understanding our perceptual system by investigating how magic exploits its blindness and gaps is enormous. Adapting our perception to see the unseen could prove to be a huge benefit for us all.


American Pharmacists Association. (April 1,2012). Intentional blindness: What captures your attention? Retrieved from

Barker, M. (April 30,2013). The science of magic: it’s not all hocus pocus. Retrieved from a magician throws a, magician’s gaze – not his hand

Carpenter, S. (April 2001). Sights unseen. Retrieved from

Cherry, K. (May 4, 2020). Inattentional blindness in psychology. Retrieved from

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