We’ve developed a bit of a running theme here lately, looking at unique research methodologies like taking dogs for walks in the woods, harpooning whales, and building mazes for algae. So let’s add to that conversation this perspective article on the use of magic–stage magic, not sorcery–in understanding animal (and human) cognition. Basically, by performing magic tricks for animals, or employing equipment inspired by stage magic techniques, we can figure out what is surprising to various animals and what is not. By learning how they expect to the world to work and what is unexpected to them, we can understand more about their models of cause and effect and their capacity for various sorts of abstract thought.
The paper details several areas of human cognition that have either been studied with stage magic techniques or which are known to be challenged or exploited by particular kinds of tricks. Object permanence is an obvious one, given the popularity and variety of disappearing object tricks. Testing that ability in their infants turns many a parent into a sort of amateur magician; babies under a certain age simply won’t be impressed by that kind of sleight-of-hand because in their experience there is no rhyme or reason to anything appearing or disappearing. Other kinds of abstraction like mental time travel (not the Tenet kind) can likewise be probed with magic. In a sense, then, what we’d be doing is performing magic tricks for different species of animals to find out if they are smart enough to be fooled.
Such magical experimental designs seem like they have serious potential for cognitive psychology research. At the same time, one can easily imagine a future Ig Nobel prize being awarded to a professorial prestidigitator for asking ravens to peck a card, any card. Or perhaps I was simply primed (in cognitive psychology parlance; the magician’s term is forced) to think about the Ig Nobels because I had just read the announcement of this year’s awardees. I think my favorite was the acoustics prize for research on what alligators sound like when they’ve inhaled helium. Most relatable might be the entomology prize for sociological research on arachnophobia among entomologists. And because we do everything virtually these days, you can enjoy the ceremony yourself in all its performative absurdity.
The motto of the prize reads “For achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK” and the coverage of the event generally reflects that. The ceremony and prizes are a chance to reflect on just how creatively unnatural our behavior often has to be in our pursuit of understanding the natural world. The process is still rigorous and the findings can be valuable and enlightening, even if the acts stray towards the silly. Acknowledging that seems fine to me. Less clear are the prizes like this year’s management prize to a quintet of serially subcontracted Chinese hitmen who collectively failed to satisfy their contract, or the medical education prize to world leaders who were deemed to have mishandled their pandemic responses. I’m just not sure how to reconcile what seems to largely be genuine celebration of unglamorous scientific labors with an occasional attempt at actual critique or mockery.
Maybe one way to understand the tonal clash of Ig Nobel choices is akin to a magic trick. The nature of the awards puts one in the frame of mind of poking fun, at which point it is easier to slip from good-natured laughing with into more mean-spirited laughing at. I suspect I’ve led myself down that particular garden path many a time. And so it is good to understand how our minds can be tricked, even by ourselves. If we can have some fun learning about it with a little magic, all the better.