The Phantom Vanish Magic Trick: Investigating the Disappearance of a Non-existent Object in a Dynamic Scene

Matthew L Tompkins, Andy T Woods, Anne M Aimola Davies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Drawing inspiration from sleight-of-hand magic tricks, we developed an experimental paradigm to investigate whether magicians' misdirection techniques could be used to induce the misperception of "phantom" objects. While previous experiments investigating sleight-of-hand magic tricks have focused on creating false assumptions about the movement of an object in a scene, our experiment investigated creating false assumptions about the presence of an object in a scene. Participants watched a sequence of silent videos depicting a magician performing with a single object. Following each video, participants were asked to write a description of the events in the video. In the final video, participants watched the Phantom Vanish Magic Trick, a novel magic trick developed for this experiment, in which the magician pantomimed the actions of presenting an object and then making it magically disappear. No object was presented during the final video. The silent videos precluded the use of false verbal suggestions, and participants were not asked leading questions about the objects. Nevertheless, 32% of participants reported having visual impressions of non-existent objects. These findings support an inferential model of perception, wherein top-down expectations can be manipulated by the magician to generate vivid illusory experiences, even in the absence of corresponding bottom-up information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)950
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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