The Illusionist Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Psychological science and stage magic are the best of frenemies. Both scientists and magicians attempt, for instance, to uncover the workings of the human mind, albeit toward different ends. The former seek to share their methods and results widely, for applications in medicine, education or management, or for the sheer sake of knowledge. The latter mean to deceive and entertain, while keeping their methods proprietary; replication is very much not the point. The two fields also differ in their standards of success. In science, statistical patterns count as discovery. On the stage, a single slipup spells disaster.

In “The Illusionist Brain: The Neuroscience of Magic,” Jordi Camí and Luis Martínez elucidate the ways the two disciplines can illuminate each other. The book adds to the steady stream of academic articles and popular-science books published in the past 15 years—among them Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s “Sleights of Mind” (2010) and Gustav Kuhn’s “Experiencing the Impossible” (2019)—that explain how tricks fool us. Dr. Camí, a professor of pharmacology and a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism, and Mr. Martínez, a neuroscientist, offer an accessible introduction, spending the first third of their book laying the groundwork for how the brain operates, before delving into the mechanics of magic.

One central message is that the brain has limitations, leading to apparent flaws in perception, attention and memory. For example, each retina has a blind spot where it attaches to the optic nerve. According to Dr. Camí and Mr. Martínez, “this is a point where we should not see anything, but we do not even realize that the blind spot exists because the brain fills that gap.” Ultimately, the authors write, “our brains are in charge of building reality.”

. . . .

In . . . a classic study of “memory reconsolidation”—participants are asked to assess the speed at which two cars either “hit” or “smashed” into each other; when asked later whether they had seen any broken glass as a result of the accident, those in the higher-velocity “smashed” group were more likely to falsely recall seeing shards of glass at the scene.

As the authors move from such laboratory fare to magical illusions, however, they rarely reveal all. They suggest ways in which an illusionist might direct our attention away from the pocketing of an object or talk us into recalling an action that never actually happened, but the book is light on concrete walk-throughs. Maybe the authors intended to remain abstract to protect the secrets of the trade. The most satisfying demonstration is a video they point to—viewable online—that annotates the beats of a magic trick using the labels “divided attention,” “attention capture,” “active deviation of attention,” “neutral maneuver,” “physical concealment,” “amodal completion” and “speed.”

What’s amazing is how stubborn the brain is in its fallibility. There’s the phenomenon called “choice blindness,” in which people are easily tricked into justifying a decision they never made. There’s also “choice blindness blindness,” in which people exhibit the phenomenon of choice blindness and then deny their susceptibility when it is explained to them.

While the book focuses on how magicians undercut our smarts, it also touches on the muddier terrain of why we enjoy such brazen humbling. The authors don’t explore this ground fully, noting little more than magic’s inducement of wonder. I suspect it’s a combination of a few factors. First, it highlights human errancy in a nonthreatening way. (The psychologist Peter McGraw has described humor as resulting from “benign violations” of how we believe the world ought to be.) Second, it displays a performer’s ingenuity or dexterity at exploiting such mental bugs. Many also see magic as presenting tantalizing puzzles, but some audiences don’t want a solution. As the magician Teller once told me, “it’s the joy of being defeated by art.” Sometimes, there’s also an engaging narrative, although acts rarely tap into deep emotions like sorrow or anger, denying magic the reach of music or film.

. . . .

In fact, magic and science pair best at the educational level, with science explaining to nonmagicians how magic works, and magic demonstrating scientific ideas to nonscientists. Still, the authors suggest some scientific questions about magic, probing the neural correlates as one witnesses the “impossible,” exploring the characteristics of those who dislike magic or studying the possibility of using artificial intelligence to invent tricks. The latter would be a feat. Using AI simply to predict human reactions to elaborate acts would be a grand challenge, requiring common-sense reasoning and perhaps emotional processing.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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