It’s late, the room’s warm, and the students look sleepy. To liven things up, how about starting the lecture with a magic trick? In favour of a little abracadabra, it’s known that exposing people to paradoxes gets them thinking creatively, and brain scan research has shown that watching magic fires up neural networks involved in problem solving. But on the other hand, maybe the magic could just end up a big distraction – the students might spend time wondering how the trick was done – or maybe the lecture will just seem dull by comparison.
To find out, a trio of researchers led by Simon Moss at Charles Darwin University in Australia recently recruited 224 participants online and allocated some to watch an 80-second video of a magic trick (a man apparently sawn in half). In this group, some were additionally told how the trick was done. Other participants were assigned to watch a 90-second video of a circus performer throwing hats, or to a no-video condition.
Next, all the participants watched a video of a two-minute lecture about the brain’s default mode network. After the lecture finished, they answered various questions about their psychological state, their experience of the lecture, and they took a short quiz based on its content.
The results weren’t good for magic-loving lecturers. Participants in the magic condition who weren’t told how the trick was done subsequently reported feeling lower “need for cognition” – that is, they tended to say they preferred not to think too hard, perhaps because they were so drained thinking about how the man had survived the chain saw. And all the participants who watched the magic, whether the trick was explained to them or not, subsequently reported feeling less engaged by the lecture, as compared to participants in the other conditions. The only consolation was that these effects were small and the magic didn’t seem to adversely affect comprehension of the lecture.
Moss and his team concluded: “…this research does underscore a vital caveat to lecturers: videos and demonstrations that might seem entertaining and absorbing could subsequently distract attention from information that is not as amusing but more important.”