Just like that, the hand is faster than the brain

Neuroscientists use illusions to illuminate what's going on inside our heads. Matthew Reisz reports

April 5, 2012

"Magicians are amazing artists who can manipulate attention and awareness far better than scientists."

That is the view of neuroscientist Stephen Macknik who, with his wife and fellow neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, has produced a book exploring the links between magic and science.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Brains goes behind the scenes of magicians bending spoons, sawing women in half and bringing paintings to life in order to illuminate "the story of the greatest magic show on earth: the one that is happening right now inside your head".

The couple's interest in magic began in 2005 when, as young researchers specialising in visual neuroscience, they organised a conference with a prize for the Best Illusion of the Year. It proved a great success and led to an invitation to chair another conference in Las Vegas, where they realised the advantage of using magic in research.

The problem, as they saw it, was that studies of perceptual illusion in the lab are easily corrupted when participants suspect that they are being tricked or start guessing what the scientist is trying to prove, whereas at a magic show, the audience knows it is being fooled. But although the idea of incorporating illusions in research sounded promising, there was just one stumbling block: the couple knew nothing about magic.

Just as a neuroscientist using a flickering light as a stimulus needs to understand the physics behind it, Dr Macknik believed they could only bring magicians into the lab once they "really understood magic as a performance art" - so they set about being initiated into the Magic Castle in Hollywood as bona fide magicians.

This required hundreds of hours of practice and then a 15-minute demonstration, which was "as scary as or worse than doing a PhD exam".

At the book's heart, Dr Macknik said, are fresh insights into the "links between emotion and attention. Magicians use humour partly for entertainment value but also carefully choreograph it to suppress or control attention. Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) uses both humour and horror to get away with things all the time."

Although the couple, both of whom direct laboratories at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, work largely in the field of basic science, a deeper understanding of the neuroscience of attention and emotion could have clinical applications in treating conditions with an emotional component, such as Alzheimer's.

Sleights of Mind, written with the help of science journalist Sandra Blakeslee, also reveals that magicians believe that academics are particularly easy to fool. It tells the story of one illusionist, Danny Hillis, who showed a trick to Richard Feynman - the legendary physicist - before challenging him to figure out how it worked. When Professor Feynman laboriously deduced the correct answer, Mr Hillis would simply "repeat the trick using an entirely different method".

"It drove him crazy," Mr Hillis recalls. "He never got the meta principle that I changed methods...Nature is reliable. The idea that someone would switch methods just flummoxed him."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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