Logo Logo
Switch language to English
Faber, Amory (2012): Investigation of insight with magic tricks: introducing a novel paradigm. Dissertation, LMU München: Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences (GSN)



This thesis proposes a new approach to investigate insight problem solving. Introducing magic tricks as a problem solving task, we asked participants to find out the secret method used by the magician to create the magic effect. Based on the theoretical framework of the representational change theory, we argue that magic tricks are ideally suited to investigate insight because similar to established insight tasks like puzzles, observers’ prior knowledge activates constraints. In order to see through the magic trick, the constraints must be overcome by changing the problem representation. The aim of the present work is threefold: First, we set out to provide a proof of concept for this novel paradigm by demonstrating that it is actually possible for observers to gain insight into the magician’s secret method and that this can be experienced as a sudden, insightful solution. We therefore aimed at showing that magic tricks can trigger insightful solutions that are accompanied by an Aha! experience. The proposed paradigm could be a useful contribution to the field of insight research where new stimuli beyond traditional puzzle approaches are sorely needed. Second, the present work is aimed at contributing to a better understanding of the subjective Aha! experience that is currently often relied on as important classification criterion in neuroscientific studies of insight, yet remains conceptually vague. The new task will therefore be used to further elucidate the phenomenology of the Aha! experience by assessing participants’ individual solving experiences. As a third question, we investigated the influence of insight on memory. A positive impact of insight on subsequent solution recall is often implicitly assumed, because the representational change underlying insightful solutions is assumed to facilitate the retention of solution knowledge, yet this was never tested. A stimulus set of magic tricks was developed in collaboration with a professional magician, covering a large range of different magic effects and methods. After recording the tricks in a standardized theatre setting, pilot studies were run on 45 participants to identify appropriate tricks and to ensure that they were understandable, surprising and difficult. In the main experiment, 50 participants watched the final set of 34 magic tricks, with the task of trying to figure out how the trick was accomplished. Each trick was presented up to three times. Upon solving the trick, participants had to indicate whether they had found the solution through sudden insight (i.e. with an Aha! experience) or not. Furthermore, we obtained a detailed characterization of the Aha! experience by asking participants for a comprehensive quantitative (ratings on a visual analogue scale with fixed dimensions) and qualitative evaluation (free self-reports) which was repeated after 14 days to control for its reliability. At that time, participants were also required to perform a recall of their solutions. We found that 49% of all magic tricks could be solved and specifically, that insightful solutions were elicited in 41.1% of solved trials. In comparison with noninsight solutions, insightful solutions (brought about by representational change) were more likely to be correct and reached earlier. Quantitative evaluations of individual Aha! experiences turned out to be highly reliable since they remained identical across the time span of 14 days. Qualitatively, participants reported more emotional than cognitive aspects. This primacy of positive emotions was found in qualitative as well as in quantitative evaluations, although two different methods were used. We also found that experiencing insight leads to a facilitated recall of the respective solutions since 64.4% of all insight solutions were recalled correctly, whereas only 52.4% of all noninsight solutions were recalled correctly after a delay of 14 days. We demonstrated the great potential of our new approach by providing a proof of concept for magic tricks as a problem solving task and conclude that magic tricks offer a novel way of inducing problem solving that elicits insight. The reliability of individual evaluations of Aha! experiences indicates that, despite its subjective character, it can be justified to use the Aha! experience as a classification criterion. The present work contributes to a better understanding of the phenomenology of the Aha! experience by providing evidence for the occurrence of strong positive emotions as a prevailing aspect. This work also revealed a memory advantage for solutions that were reached through insight, demonstrating a facilitating effect of previous insight experiences on the recall of solutions. This finding provides support for the assumption that a representational change underlying insightful solving experiences leads to long-lasting changes in the representation of a problem that facilitate the retention of the problem’s solution. In sum, the novel approach presented in this thesis is shown to constitute a valuable contribution to the field of insight research and offers much potential for future research. Revealing the relationship between insight and magic tricks, the framework of the representational change theory is applied to a new domain and thus enlarged. Combining the novel task domain of magic tricks with established insight tasks might help to further elucidate the process of insight problem solving which is a characteristic and vital part of human thinking and yet so difficult to grasp.