To be a good magician, you have to be a good psychologist. If you want to pull off a really good magic trick, you need to know your audience—what they are likely to attend to or gloss over, what shortcuts they take, what predictions they tend to make. Which all raises a question: Could you get to know a new audience, a very different audience, by seeing which tricks they fall for and which they don’t? Could we use magic as a scientific tool, in other words, as a window into minds that may be quite unlike our own?
My guest today is Dr. Nicola Clayton. Nicky is Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Psychology department at the University of Cambridge. She is this year’s winner of the prestigious ASAB medal, awarded by Association for the Study of Animal Behavior. Nicky is perhaps best known for her research on birds—corvids in particular—and how they show evidence of sophisticated cognitive abilities like memory, planning, mental time travel, and even understanding of other minds. Recently, Nicky and her colleagues have been up to something new: showing magic tricks to birds, as a way of probing their impressive mental capacities.
Here, Nicky and I talk about why magic is a useful tool for psychologists. We discuss her pioneering earlier work on corvids and, in particular, on how they hide or “cache” vast amounts of food. We talk about how corvids protect their caches from would-be thieves using tactics that, curiously, resemble some of those used by human magicians. We dive into some recent studies from Nicky’s lab that involved showing classic magic tricks to Eurasian jays. And, finally, we get a tiny taste of what might be coming up in this line of research.
Before we get to it, one quick announcement: Applications are now open for the 2022 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute or DISI. After two years in the Zoomverse, DISI will be back in 3D this summer in St Andrews, Scotland. If you like the topics we talk about on this show, it’s a pretty safe bet you’d be into DISI. So check out disi.org for more info.
Alright folks, without further hocus pocus, here’s my conversation about magic and birds with Dr. Nicky Clayton. Enjoy!