Sleights of mind: The neuroscience of magic
New Horizons in Science 2011
Monday, 17 October
To Anthony Barnhart, there is one word that describes how every magic trick is accomplished: psychology. Our brains evolved to perform a variety of tricks that have proven essential for our survival, but that, when manipulated by magicians, leave us painfully (and sometimes happily!) vulnerable to deception. The brain fills in missing pieces of the visual world and eagerly relies on magicians for guidance, given by a word or a subtle movement.
Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik have examined many facets of human perception and cognition in magic. For their presentation they will focus particularly on misdirection—how magicians manipulate the spectator’s spotlight of attention. They have found that in the primary visual cortex, attention has a “center-surround” affect. When you follow something with close attention, the neurons wired to the center of your visual field are enhanced, and those wired to the surrounding area are suppressed. The harder you concentrate, the greater the enhancement and suppression—making it easier for a magician to make an unseen movement away from your center of attention. Martinez-Conde and Macknik, co-authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, will explain why magicians are fairly astute neuroscientists and update us on their current research.