The husband and wife researching team of Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Gonde work at the Barrow Neurological Institute and they studied magicians, magic tricks and how an audience reacts to the tricks.
"We realized that magicians were the artists of attention and awareness," Macknik said.
The researchers say they discovered multitasking is a myth. People can only concentrate on one thing at a time.
"If multitasking wasn't a myth, if we could truly do multitasking, multiple things at the same time, then magic wouldn't work," Macknik said.
The team showed magic tricks to study participants while recording their eye movements and scanning their brain waves.
"We actually have tunnel vision," Macknik said.
He demonstrated how we can look and focus on something and everything else gets suppressed, or we can look and focus on two different areas. Then, they say, we won't be paying attention to the object we're looking at.
"As magicians know very well," Martinez-Gonde said, "a lot of the time we look, but we don't see, because we're not paying attention or we're paying attention to the wrong thing."
The magicians in the study manipulated the audience's attention to achieve their tricks.
"Magicians use this all the time to make you think you're looking at something when in fact you're paying attention to something else," Martinez-Gonde said.
They said this explains why trying to multitask can cause errors or even be dangerous. An excellent example of this is driving while talking on a phone. While you might be looking at the road, the researchers said, your attention is focused on the telephone call.
"You can't do both at the same time because there is no such thing as multitasking," Macknik said.
The researchers said their findings might aid cognitive therapists who are rehabbing victims of strokes or other brain injuries by helping the patients focus only on what they want to concentrate on.
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