Scientist uses magic (and psychology) to implant thoughts and read minds


In a new scientific study, McGill University researcher Jay Olson combined stage magic with psychology to make people think that an fMRI machine (actually a fake) could read their minds and implant thoughts in their heads. Essentially, Olson and his colleagues used “mentalist” gimmicks to do the ESP and “thought insertion” but convinced the subjects that it was real neuroscience at work. The research could someday help psychologists study and understand why some individuals with mental health problems think they are being controlled by external forces. Vaughan “Mind Hacks” Bell blogged about Olson’s research for the British Psychological Society. From Vaughan’s post:

(The subjects) reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being “inserted” into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people’s minds(BPS)

Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic(Consciousness and Cognition)

Illustration by Rob Beschizza

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