Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by by Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, Sandra Blakeslee
Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, the founders of the exciting new discipline of neuromagic, have convinced some of the world’s greatest magicians to allow scientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain. This book is the result of the authors’ yearlong, world-wide exploration of magic and how its principles apply to our behavior. Magic tricks fool us because humans have hardwired processes of attention and awareness that are hackable—a good magician uses your mind’s own intrinsic properties against you in a form of mental jujitsu.
Now magic can reveal how our brains work in everyday situations. For instance, if you’ve ever bought an expensive item you’d sworn you’d never buy, the salesperson was probably a master at creating the “illusion of choice,” a core technique of magic. The implications of neuromagic go beyond illuminating our behavior; early research points to new approaches for everything from the diagnosis of autism to marketing techniques and education. Sleights of Mind makes neuroscience fun and accessible by unveiling the key connections between magic and the mind (via Goodreads)
I checked this out from the library at the same time as Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables. Without really planning it, these two books are interesting companions, covering similar (and sometimes the same) issues of perception and deception. Although the more recently published of the two, Storr’s book seemed to have the older science. Or maybe it was that his reaction to the science felt strangely outdated. A lot of Sleights of Mind wasn’t new to me. I’ve been poking around in the theories of magic for a few years now and even attended a lecture event at ASU back in 2012 with Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde and magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and Joshua Jay. When Storr was surprised and appalled by how much our brain infers and how our memories are terribly malleable, I was was kinda saying to myself, “Well, yeah.”*
Sleights of Mind assumes all the mind’s confabulations are a given and endeavors to better understand the processes by looking at how magicians manipulate their audience.
By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are working in advertising strategies, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations. When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have unveiled the neural bases of consciousness itself.
Which is a pretty lofty goal and one that the authors are still pursuing.
Sleights of Mind and The Unpersuadables also have journey in common. Will Storr travels the globe investigating beliefs of all kinds. Macknik and Martinez-Conde travel to magic conventions and visit with world renowned illusionists. All involved are looking for answers. What I like about Sleights of Mind is its optimism. Some of the tricks our brain plays are really extraordinary and lead to good things like our sense of wonder. Understanding is only ever a good thing.
I do think that Macknik and Martinez-Conde give magicians a little too much credit for actually knowing what they’re doing on more than an intuition/tradition level. This is an example of the difference between what science does and what can result from technological advancement without scientific method. Magicians have come upon their techniques through a process of using what works, passing it on to the next generation of magicians who might tweek the methods, but rarely innovate through scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimentation, re-evaluation). This isn’t to say that there aren’t some texts out there by magicians that look at the nitty gritty, but it’s rare. Learning what works has traditionally superseded *why* something works.
The book exposes many magic tricks. It’s hard to discuss why magic works without talking about how its done. Macknik and Martinez-Conde have become members of the major magic guilds in existence, which includes performing for a board of professionals at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Each exposure is marked with a spoiler warning because most of the injunction against letting laypeople know secrets is to avoid inadvertent exposure. This book is really only for people who aren’t going to be disappointed to find out the nuts and bolts of magic.
* One of the things that did catch my interest was the McGurk effect. This is a sort of weird perceptual misfire that can occur when what we see and what we hear differ. It’s easier to link to a video than explain it:
Except this illusion didn’t work for me. Some other videos that I surfed to did, but results were mixed. Which got me to wondering, is it my face-blindness? Is it my left-of-center placement on the autism spectrum?
Publishing info, my copy: Henry Holt and Company, 2010, Hardback
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: Non-fiction, Magic and Related Subjects
Previously: Susana Martinez-Conde was an occasional guest lecturer in one of the classes my husband Eric took for his Computational Bioscience masters. He even got to play with brains at the Barrow Institute… And as I said above we also attended a panel discussion at ASU. It’s on YouTube!