Our son, Iago, currently in fourth grade at a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., learned a new game at recess recently. One evening, after entertaining the family with his ever expanding repertoire of knock-knock jokes, he turned to one of us (Susana) and pointed his index finger at her arm, stopping just half an inch from her skin. She looked at her arm, intrigued, and then at Iago.
“Am I touching you?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. His finger was clearly not in contact with her arm.
“Look!” he said, delighted, pointing to his other hand, which was resting on her knee.
Because Susana was so focused on her arm, she had failed to notice Iago touching a different part of her body. The trick reminded us of the tactics used by theatrical pickpockets such as Apollo Robbins, with whom we collaborated on a study of misdirection in magic. To steal spectators' belongings during his act, Apollo gets people to pay attention to a specific location (say, their front pocket) while he pilfers an object from somewhere else (such as a watch from their wrist). Iago's version was far less sophisticated, but it demonstrated the same basic principle: the best way to divert someone's attention from an object or place is to get him or her to focus elsewhere.
Iago's prank is an example of a novel but quickly growing genre of perceptual and cognitive ruses that Indiana University Bloomington folklorist K. Brandon Barker and University of Louisiana at Lafayette English professor Claiborne Rice have dubbed “folk illusions.” These playful misperceptions are shared and taught, from child to child, generation after generation, at playgrounds, schoolyards, sleepovers and summer camps. Every reader will remember at least a few such tricks from his or her childhood. Some of the earliest records date back to the 1600s (see, for example, the famous diary of English Parliamentarian and naval administrator Samuel Pepys). Today's schoolchildren still play very similar—even identical—games.
Just as brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm—recognized by some academics as the first folklorists—collected children's tales in 19th-century Germany, Barker and Rice have been compiling contemporary folk illusions in the U.S. Their collection is expanding through the painstaking process of recording children's reports and adult recollections and making direct observations of kids' interactions. Barker and Rice's future research plans include documenting folk illusions from non-Western cultures.
So far Barker and Rice have identified more than 70 types of folk illusions, starting with games such as “steal your nose” among toddlers and progressing to more sophisticated tricks throughout the school years into adulthood. Their categorization makes it clear that age affects the games we play. And this observation in turn offers a fascinating window into the brain's perceptions and thinking processes during development.
Readers are welcome to share their childhood games with Barker and Rice at email@example.com. Here we review some historical and current folk illusions and explain their neural bases.
MISSING THE BEND
This article was originally published with the title "Folk Illusions"
Folk Illusions and the Social Activation of Embodiment: Ping Pong, Olive Juice, and Elephant Shoes. K. B. Barker and C. Rice in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 53, No. 2, pages 63–85; May/August 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Susana Martinez-Conde is a professor of opthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is author of the Prisma Prize-winning Sleights of Mind, along with Stephen L. Macknik and Sandra Blakeslee. Their forthcoming book, Champions of Illusion, will be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Stephen L. Macknik is a professor of opthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Along with Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee, he is author of the Prisma Prize-winning Sleights of Mind. Their forthcoming book, Champions of Illusion, will be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.