Book Review: Sleights of Mind

I just finished reading Sleights of Mind, a fascinating book by two neuroscientists about what magic can teach us about how the mind works. The main premise is that the human brain can be fooled by magical illusions because of the shortcuts it takes in order to work efficiently under everyday situations. Conjurers have intuited how to hack these heuristics, and science can learn a great deal from them.

Among the most exploitable brain mechanisms is what the authors call the “spotlight of attention.” Consciousness is far from a faithful representation of reality. In order to make sense of the world, the brain is constantly enhancing nerve signals from objects you are focusing on, and suppressing nearby impulses. This automatic filter is why misdirection is so effective. As a big Penn and Teller fan, my interest was piqued by the participation of Teller in the book. Here he is performing the famous Cups and Balls trick, with transparent cups. Even knowing that you are being fooled does not prevent the illusion.

Although silent during their acts and television show, Teller is happy to share his insights about the deeper meaning of magic.

Among the other famous magicians is Apollo Robbins, “the world’s greatest pickpocket.”

From Nature Reviews Neuroscience:

“Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers’ deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory. Such methods could be exploited to directly study the behavioural and neural basis of consciousness itself, for instance through the use of brain imaging and other neural recording techniques.”

Author: lnemzer

Assistant Professor Nova Southeastern University

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