Magic to understand the brain

There’s an interesting (but very long) article at Wired about psychologists’ efforts to use magic to better understand the brain.

It’s an awkward fact of human existence that much of the time we don’t see something that is literally happening in front of our eyes. But, says Kuhn, that isn’t because we are stupid, it’s because the brain is a brilliant economiser of resources. “It’s purely about efficiency,” he says. “We have to filter out information to save energy, otherwise we would get overwhelmed. Rather than just processing all the information, the brain selects the stuff that’s really important. So we can be looking at something right in front of our eyes, but the information doesn’t go any further and reach our conscious experience.”

You can try this by looking at the wall opposite you. Unless you have been thinking about redecorating, you will notice marks that, until now, you were unaware of. It’s not that photons from those marks never landed on your retina. They almost certainly did. It’s just that the brain discarded that data as unimportant.

As a practicing magician, I’m excited to see the world in general, and academia in particular, take a more serious interest in what we do. There’s a lot to read in the full article.

Magic and Neuroscience

In recent years, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have taken an interest in magic, and for good reason. Science advances by exploring areas where predictions are experience don't match (think of Einstein and the strange precession in the orbit of Mercury). Magic is exactly one of those circumstances. When you experience a piece of magic, then later reflect back after learning the secret, it's often difficult to understand how you could have been fooled by something so simple — and the secrets behind magic tricks are often unbelievably simple. That means by the light of science there should be something interesting at work.

However most often when researchers try to tackle these issues, they miss the mark. After a superficial interview with a magician or a mentalist, they offer up their best guest at a just-so story. The most blatant example is the 2010 book Sleights of Mind written by two perfectly competent neuroscientists but whose explanations of tricks is downright goofy.

This recent article by Steven Novella at NeuroLogica is refreshingly astute and well worth reading.

Magicians have learned to use various cues to enhance such illusions. They may verbally create an expectation. They also use social cues, like where they direct their vision. Their eyes will follow the non-existent ball, encouraging our brains to top-down perceive it. Further, the entire act can create a meta-expectation that something fantastic will occur. Everyone knows that magic is not real, but the magician creates the impression that they have fantastic skill, and are doing something very complex. The astonishment of those around us may also encourage us to be astonished.