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Many Minds

Mar 2, 2022

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 for more info.

Alright folks, without further hocus pocus, here's my conversation about magic and birds with Dr. Nicky Clayton. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

2:45 ­– A recent editorial in Science by Dr. Clayton and colleagues about the promise of using magic to illuminate animal minds.

4:45 – One of Dr. Clayton’s primary collaborators on her magic studies is Clive Wilkins, who is an artist, writer, and professional magician. He is a member of the Magic Circle in London.

8:30 – For more on tool use in corvids, see our prior episode with Dr. Alex Taylor. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Clayton have collaborated on a number of studies.

10:30 – A 2004 paper in Science by Dr. Clayton and Dr. Nathan Emery on the convergent evolution of intelligence in apes and corvids. A recent paper on physical and social intelligence in ravens.

14:00 – Dr. Clayton has authored a number of influential studies on caching behavior in corvids; see here, here, and here, among others.

17:30 – A paper by Dr. Clayton and a colleague on how caching jays are sensitive to who can hear them caching.

21:30 – A recent paper in PNAS by Dr. Clayton and her colleagues, including lead author Elias Garcia-Pelegrin, examining three sleight of hand tricks in jays and humans.

24:00 – A recent video profile of Dr. Clayton’s line of work on magic includes examples of these sleight of hand tricks.

27:00 – A recent paper by Dr. Clayton and her colleagues, including lead author Dr. Alex Schnell, examining a version of the “cup and balls” trick, also shown to jays.  

35:00 – The proposed priming experiment was inspired by a recent paper on subconscious gestural priming in humans.

36:00 – For work on cephalopods, see our prior episode with Dr. Alex Schnell, who has collaborated with Dr. Clayton on the magic work in addition to wave-making studies on cephalopods.

Dr. Clayton recommends:

A profile of her lab’s work on magic in New Scientist

Bird Brain, by Nathan Emery

Experiencing the Impossible, by Gustav Kuhn

You can find Dr. Clayton on Twitter (@nickyclayton22).


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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