Kyle Eschen: The Art of Cognitive Blindspots at TEDxVienna (Transcript)

Kyle Eschen

Here is the full transcript of Kyle Eschen’s TEDx Talk: The Art of Cognitive Blindspots at TEDxVienna conference.


Thank you very much for your attention. As the sign says, my name is Kyle Eschen.

I’m a magician. Magic has been my hobby for a number of years now. Some people have other hobbies like stamp collecting or friendship. Mine is magic. I will start with a cheap visual stunt to grab your attention, and cover the fact that my act is devoid of any intellectual content.

Rivet your focus onto the handkerchief. Now some of the more astute among you may have realized that a transformation has taken place. It starts off. It starts off silk, yet it emerges a rayon blend. I am what you might call a sleight-of-hand magician, which means I manipulate small objects like handkerchiefs or playing cards. Sometimes when people hear this, they tell me that if I practice hard, I’ll work my way up to more elaborate stage productions with large objects, large boxes, animals.

And to me, that’s like telling a violinist, if she practices hard, someday she will be able to play the cello. It’s an understandable thing to say though, because people are not exposed to magic in the same way that they’re exposed to music.

Therefore, I am very happy to talk to you here today at TEDxVienna about my enthusiasm for this art form. I am interested in magic because I am fascinated with psychology. I love to learn about how people make inferences about the world; how they draw conclusions and find patterns and information. In particular, I’m interested in all that can go wrong: how an individual can be led astray when certain cognitive vulnerabilities are exploited, and I think that magic is a great way to explore these themes in a borderline ethical fashion.

So to do so, I will do two tricks tonight. The first is frankly horrible, it brings shame upon my family, and pushes the word “asinine” to new frontiers. I use it, however, because it illustrates a problem that I think is inherent in a lot of magic, and I want to contrast it to the second trick, which is better in that it brings less shame upon my family. It’s the oldest trick in magic at over 2000 years old, and it’s primary method are some psychological techniques, cultivated by countless magicians over the centuries.

So it embodies everything that I love about magic. But first, the asinine trick which requires some props on this table, I will fetch them in my typical flamboyant fashion.

Two sticks of wood: suspended from each is a length of string – a long one, and a short one, because variety is the spice of life. They trade off lengths – nothing astonishing has happened yet – and yet I can now separate the front ends of the sticks at a 30-degree angle.

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Now there is a video of me doing this on YouTube, and someone in the comments wrote: “Actually, that’s not 30 degrees, that’s more like 45 degrees.” And I sighed in relief, because I knew the world’s intellectual future was safe. Despite the fact that these sticks are now separated by this gaping chasm, we find, to our delight and surprise, it’s a miracle.

Although, I do sense some people in the audience have their suspicions, as to how this might be accomplished, and I thank you for not voicing them because as you all may know I’m emotionally unstable. You might think that instead of being connected in the front, they’re actually connected in the back. This would happen to be somewhat accurate. I shall rectify the situation. This is emasculating.

The string has been lacerated. I brandish this in the air wildly, because I’m young and invincible. I now separate the sticks at a vast distance, yet oddly enough, we find to our delight and surprise, now you all respect me as a person. Back and forth, they go in a monotonous yet strangely amusing fashion, anything falling this would certainly be an anti-climax. However, I will continue, because I’m contractually obligated to fill 12 minutes.

A third magic wand sits in my pocket, socially isolated, much like I was for a number of years, until I learned magic and became accepted. These two go back and forth just as before, the nostalgia is overwhelming. But to get the adrenaline levels up in the room, all I do is pull here. Oh, how very whimsical. It’s like a lyrical dance of tassels and sticks.

A phrase which oddly enough I now use on a daily basis. It’s the first time that expression has ever been uttered on a TEDx stage. I keep doing this because, as you know, if I had real magic powers, this is what I’d be doing all day. Watch this image with your eyes, Vienna, because this is the picture perfect representation of despair. I’m going to conclude now because the overwhelming emotion in this room is one of irritation.

I would explain why I think this is a lousy trick. I think it’s a lousy trick because at its core, it’s just a puzzle. And by that I mean, you might know how it’s done, you might not know, but either way, you just don’t care. It doesn’t tell you anything about the world; doesn’t tell you anything about how people think, so with this next trick I’m hoping to head into that territory, I will hand the props off to a kind stranger who emerges from offstage.

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Thank you, kind stranger. This next trick is an example of what is called “improvisational magic,” where I will do magic with any item called out from the crowd. So it could be like the monitor, my microphone, my tie. Oh! Who put these cups here. Maybe we should use these, I don’t know.

We require an examination of the props. You sir, would you mind standing up, please look at these, make sure there are no secret compartments or hidden objects, you can click them together if you want. Although, I will warn you the amount of noise you make is directly proportional to the audience’s antagonism toward you, but just take a look at those cups, I will set some context.

In 1999, two psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Jarvis, ran a fascinating experiment that actually inspired this presentation. They had a video of two teams playing basketball, and they asked subjects to watch it, and count the times the basketball was passed between teammates.

During this whole process, an individual dressed as a gorilla walks into the fray, beats its chest, and then exits off-screen. Amazingly about half of the viewers were so fixated on tracking the basketballs motion, they missed the gorilla entirely. And this is a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness”. It is a blind spot, not of vision, but of perception and awareness. You can be looking right at something and miss it entirely, because you only have limited cognitive bandwidth in any given moment.

So you focus in on what’s important, and you filter out the extraneous. And when I heard this, as a magician, it really resonated with me, because my job is to make you confuse what is important and what is extraneous. My job, in a nutshell, is to make you filter out the wrong things. So I will move the table center stage, retrieve the props. Thank you very much.

Can we have a round of applause for the gentleman for helping? Because I don’t do the magic, we do the magic. A few more props are required we have two red balls and a pen. These are made of compressible sponge rubber, a lot of fun. But they don’t stay around for long because all I do is condescendingly wave the pen over the ball and we find that it dissolves, it’s gone.

I’m just being theatrical at that point. Next ball disappears in full view, and then jumps back to beneath the cups. Now a number of rapid effects in tight succession to up my miracle to verbiage ratio, I will attempt to fracture your focus across this confined arena.

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First, we will pocket the sponges and it will make the ball return to the cup, not that one, this one over here I can make this one appear too, just in a necessary flamboyant little tap is all it takes for the ball to jump back, and you are all privy to one of the most sacred moments in a young sponges life the point in which it first undergoes mitosis.

Watch the ball as it severs into two identical copies fiber by fiber, strand by strand. And now, one last feat before the grand finale, I’ll put one ball in each hand. Sir, would you mind saying which any like more A or B? (Audience) A. Thank you for not hesitating Some people hesitate, as if this is a decision of any consequence whatsoever. You say A.

The ball melts away like this, and when you watch down here the balls reconvene up here leaving us just back where we started. Now, the question you should be asking yourself at this point, is what does this have to do with inattentional blindness? What does this have to do with looking directly at something and missing blatant activity? And the answer to that is that these sponges are not the stars of this trick. They serve the same function as the basketball in the gorilla study. They were just here to draw the gaze.

The real purpose of this trick was to do something for our bolder. Because beneath these cups, cups thoroughly scrutinized, cups that have never left your view, we find citrus fruits; not one, not two, but three Citrus fruit: rock-solid limes with the density of diamonds. Thank you very much. I’m not done.

I have an inspirational little ending message. If you were to Google how to do the ‘cups and balls and lime trick,’ the explanation you would receive would go something like this: when people are not paying attention, put the limes underneath the cups. That’s it. That’s how magic survives in the age of Google, because there is no secret but the great secret which is we have gaping blind spots far bigger than our intuition would suggest. And to me, that is a beautiful idea, and one that animates my interest in this art.

It’s been a pleasure to share with you this evening. Thank you very much.


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