Scientists have teamed up with magicians to perform illusions on Eurasian jays, revealing flaws in their perception – and modes of thinking we didn’t know they had
IN HIS right hand, Elias Garcia-Pelegrin holds a worm. He pretends to grab it with his left but, while his fingers obscure it, he lets it drop back into the right – a classic sleight of hand called the French drop. Garcia-Pelegrin, who began performing magic when he was a student, has fooled countless people with this trick. But today’s audience isn’t buying it: Stuka the Eurasian jay moves her beak towards his right hand, which he opens to give her the treat.
Comparative psychologists have often employed deception to explore how animals think. For example, they have used boxes with false bottoms to switch one type of food for another, studying the reactions of dogs and apes to understand how they form mental representations of hidden objects. But the French drop experiment is something new. It is part of the first study to explicitly compare how animals and people react to magic tricks designed to fool humans.
Such illusions offer a fascinating window on our minds: they highlight gaps in our perception and attention that magicians exploit to disguise what is in front of our eyes. But what about other animals – do they fall for the same tricks we do? Could their susceptibility to magic tricks highlight flaws in their perception, or even reveal kinds of intelligence we didn’t know they had?
“The interesting thing is the comparison with us,” says Garcia-Pelegrin at the University of Cambridge. “Once we have the theory of why a trick works on humans, we can see why it works, or not, on another species, and that tells us about their vision system, their attentional system, their perceptive system …