Performing magic tricks with Eurasian jays helps scientists to understand the animals’ powers of perception, but also their ability to read minds, remember the past and anticipate the future.
22 December 2021
Psychologists have long studied how magic deceives us. Illusionists exploit shortcomings in our attention and perception to prevent us seeing what is in front of our eyes, and learning how their tricks work can reveal a great deal about how our minds work.
I visited a team of scientists led by Nicola Clayton at the University of Cambridge, who believe that the same applies to animals. Working with magician Clive Wilkins, who is artist-in-residence at the department of psychology, they are devising ways to test animals’ cognitive abilities using types of magic tricks designed to fool humans.
Their first subjects are Eurasian jays. These birds, known for their intelligence, are capable of feats resembling magic tricks in the wild. Like crows and other members of the corvid family, they hide food to retrieve later. If another jay is watching, they may pretend to stash their food in multiple places so that the observer doesn’t know where it is – rather like a magician performing a cups-and-balls trick. They can even hide items in a throat pouch, just as magicians use secret pockets.
Team member Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, who is also a magician, tested whether the birds would fall for a series of sleight-of-hand tricks by concealing a worm in one of his hands, and training the birds to peck his thumb to show where they thought the treat was.
Experiments like this might tell us not only about animals’ powers of perception, but also their ability to read minds, remember the past and anticipate the future.
More magic for the mind
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