Why Scientists Should Use Magic to Study Animal Intelligence

Why Scientists Should Use Magic to Study Animal Intelligence
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock

Scientists should use magic tricks to better understand animal intelligence and perception, argue a team of researchers in a new paper. The idea makes sense, particularly when humans and animals can be fooled by the same illusion.

I’ve never really been a fan of magic tricks. Sure, they’re entertaining as hell, but they make me feel, well, a bit violated. When I’m duped by a magician, I feel like they’ve somehow reached into my brain and exploited a cognitive weakness or vulnerability. It’s like my brain is being hacked.

To be fair, that’s exactly what magicians are trying to do, with their sleight of hand, distractions, and use of illusions. Though I’m loathe to admit it, my brain is not perfect, so of course I’m vulnerable to such tricks, as are virtually all humans.

But as a new Science: Perspectives article points out, it’s not just humans who get fooled by magic tricks. Many species of animals are likewise susceptible to these deceptions, which, as the authors of the article point out, is a good thing, as far as science is concerned. In fact, they’re outright encouraging scientists to use magic as a tool for studying animal thinking, behaviour, and perception.

“The psychology of magic offers the scientific community a powerful methodological tool for testing the perceptive blind spots and cognitive roadblocks in diverse [species],” write the authors, led by Elias Garcia-Pelegrin from the University of Cambridge. “Studying whether animals can be deceived by the same magic effects that deceive humans can offer a window into the cognitive parallels and variances in attention, perception, and mental time travel.”

The idea is not as outlandish as it seems. The concept has been gaining traction over the past decade, as scientists increasingly experiment with various magical effects or tricks when working with animals. As noted by the authors, many researchers — whether knowingly or unknowingly — are using magic in the lab, such as the use of boxes with false bottoms when working with dogs and great apes, or the use of transparent string to confound New Caledonian crows with apparent acts of levitation. Such experiments aren’t meant to entertain the animals; rather, the scientists are looking for the animals’ reactions to these logical incongruities.

“The idea of using magic tricks to study cognition in animals is brilliant, although not new,” Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and executive director of the Kimmela Centre For Animal Advocacy, explained in an email. “As the authors point out, visual illusions and other tricky strategies have been used for years to study cognition and perception in other animals and humans. In fact, ‘deception’ is a mainstay of cognition research.”

Marino said the article serves as a good reminder that there are “novel and clever ways to study thinking in other animals that we might not have thought of before.”

An overarching idea here is that, if a certain magic trick can fool both humans and animals, then we must share something in common in terms of our psychological, cognitive, and perceptual capacities. Such insights can lead to meaningful comparative analyses between humans and animals, but also between closely related nonhuman animal species. In addition to flagging the presence of certain abilities, magical effects can highlight cognitive gaps in the realms of perception, attention, and intelligence. What’s more, these experiments could lead to entirely new avenues of research, the authors argue.

“I think the most interesting aspect of this article is the notion that we can compare human and nonhuman minds by determining if they share ‘blind spots’ or vulnerabilities to certain tricks,” said Marino. “If animals are fooled by the same magic tricks and illusions we are fooled by, then that means there is a lot of shared psychology across humans and nonhuman animals.”

It might sound silly or strange that the act of being tricked can convey intelligence or other abilities, but a tricked observer, whether human, dog, or bird, was expecting a certain outcome. Accordingly, it’s a glimpse into the observer’s mind. The act of holding a certain expectation shows that we’re reflective of the past, we’re aware of how things are supposed to work, and we can anticipate future events.

Interestingly, gaps or variances in cognition could mean that certain species have their own magical tricks up their sleeve. For example, the authors note that some corvids (a group of birds that includes crows, magpies, and blue jays) will secretly hide their food in a stash while also performing fake caching activities in an attempt to misdirect an opportunistic observer in search of an easy meal. Chimpanzees are known to “divert their gaze from a desired object to detract a competitor’s attention from it,” according to the authors.

The ability to pull off these tricks indicates a certain level of cognitive sophistication, including the concept of other mind (i.e. “other minds exist and they think just like you do”), and object permanence, which the authors define as the “ability to form a mental representation of an object when it is out of sight and to maintain it in memory.”

An important issue emerges, however: Animals can’t verbalize their astonishment or confusion after being tricked. So how are scientists supposed to know if an animal has been fooled? As the authors point out, one way is to measure the amount of time that an animal takes to evaluate the trick or an apparent problem posed by the trick. An event can be deemed a surprise if the subject animal spends “significantly longer looking at the event compared with an event that is deemed ordinary,” the authors write.

Another challenge is that not all species interact with humans in the same way. Birds seem to be interested in these sorts of experiments, whereas it’s more challenging for scientists to engage chimpanzees, for example. The authors recommend training as a way around this obstacle.

Ultimately, they hope that future researchers will incorporate magical effects into their investigations of animal minds.

“The ideas the authors propose are useful ways to go forward to study animal thinking benignly and noninvasively,” said Marino. “And these kinds of studies lend themselves very well to control conditions that are important to test hypotheses.”

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As for the risk of these experiments being unethical, Marino said she’s not really worried about that, “apart from the basic ethical problems with confining animals to labs.”

Good point, and a nice reality check. As always, it’s important for scientists to remember the three R’s of animal testing: reduction, refinement, and replacement. Any experiment done on animals, whether it requires poking, prodding, or magical deception, still needs to abide by basic rules and human decency.