David Blaine. David Copperfield. Harry Houdini. These three magicians may be ranked among the world's most talented, but there is another person that also belongs on this list: You. Even if you can't wield magic from a wand or pull a bunny from your hat, it doesn't mean you aren't born with mystical, preternatural skills that you probably didn't know you had, but use everyday. Here are five of them:
Developed by scientists 20 years ago, the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' (Eyes Test, for short) test showed that people can figure out what someone else is thinking or feeling simply by looking into their eyes. (Not everyone is equally talented however, with women being better at "mind reading" than men.) In a recent follow-up study of 89,000 people, the scientists found this talent for mind reading is rooted in genetics. For women specifically, genetic variants on chromosome 3 (one of 23 pairs of human chromosomes) are believed to influence and shape cognitive empathy, suggesting empathy is, in fact, partly genetic.
The dread you feel in the pit of your stomach when a situation just feels off? This is a gut feeling, and unlike illusions, it can be trusted. According to Ph.D.s Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, authors of The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health, our brain and gut are linked by an "extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback." From letting you know that it's time for lunch to alerting you that you're late for an important meeting, this "brain-gut axis" helps to physically manifest your internal stress.
Furthermore, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls gut feelings 'somatic markers' that help us differentiate between right or wrong, which in turn, can steer us toward making better decisions. Scientists believe our guts' intuition is powered by the hundreds of neurochemicals it produces to regulate and maintain basic human functions, including memory, learning and mood.
ESP and Premonitions
For the majority of us who do not see dead people, ESP or extrasensory perception is our true sixth sense. ESP, precognition and premonition all fall under the larger category of psi (in short, inexplicable science) studied by Cornell University social psychologist Daryl Bem. Based on the results of a series of empirical tests on more than 1,000 subjects, he suggests the human brain posses a psychic ability to predict what's coming next. In one experiment, subjects played a computer game where they guessed which of two curtains hid a sexy image. Their accuracy rate—53.4 percent—was higher than both random chance (50 percent) and non-sexy or neutral images, suggesting that subjects could subliminally predict the location of the erotic photos. (Although worth noting, in the years since, some within the science community have unsuccessfully replicated his experiments, inciting controversy and skepticism regarding his results.)
We've all seen this classic bit of mind control: a magician invites unsuspecting audience members onto the stage, whispers a few words of hocus pocus, then snaps his fingers. The next thing you know, everyone is quacking like a duck or hopping on one foot until he snaps his fingers again. Now imagine this hypnosis taking place in the doctor's office—with even more mesmerizing results!
Clinical hypnotherapy is considered to be an effective method for treating health problems, such as phobias, eating disorders and chronic pain. In one groundbreaking study by researchers at the University of Montreal, test subjects under hypnosis submerged their hands in very hot water or room-temperature water. Some of the participants were warned they would experience pain but it wouldn't bother them very much. When all of them put their hands into the water, brain scans revealed that those who had been primed for minimal pain actually showed less pain-processing activity in their brains. Even though some argue hypnosis is a only a placebo effect, it doesn't make the results less amazing or real.
We are Easily Fooled by Magic
There's a reason why David Copperfield is a multi-millionaire who has sold more show tickets than any other solo entertainer in history (including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Elvis!) or why David Blaine still amazes audiences 20 years after his first TV special, Street Magic. People love magic. Okay, maybe they don't love magic, but they are certainly susceptible to being tricked.
In fact, one recent experimental psychology study found that one-third of people were convinced by a magician that an object they had never seen—disappeared. Illustrating how our expectations can overpower our senses, this psychological magic trick employs a magician's favorite tool, misdirection.
In the experiment, participants watched a series of five videos: the first four included a magician doing something with a visible object, such as a cloth, a coin or poker chip. The first, second and fourth videos featured a magic trick with the item, while the third video showed something not magical, so the viewer could clearly differentiate between whether something was or wasn't a magic trick. In the fifth video, however, there was no visible object, yet the magician still mimes making it disappear. After watching this fifth video, 32 percent of viewers claimed to have seen something disappear, with 11 percent of them claiming to know what that object was! According to study author Matthew Tompkins, "the expectation [to see an object] is so vivid that it can actually be mistaken for a real object."