It is hard not to pay attention to optical illusions, and wonder how can it be that one line is _not_ really longer than the other or one circle is _not_ really darker than the other or all the other varieties that tell us our eyes lie to us. It was only a few decades ago that neuroscientists realized that the mistakes in visual processing were tools to examine how the eyes and brain process information. (It was also a reminder of the wonderful and mysterious lesson that our brains do not make perfect inner models of reality, but only use the tricks and shortcuts descended from their evolution to make useful, rather than exact, models.) In a way, magicians perform optical illusions and even behavioral illusions. You enjoy a magician's performance because although it looks as if he makes coins manifest from the air or makes a ball vanish when he throws it up, you know that such things cannot really be and yet you cannot figure out how the impression the magician makes is so strong. If we can get neurological understanding of the visual system from optical illusions, perhaps the illusions performed by magicians would offer an even broader range of tools to evaluate brain function. This was the insight of Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde. They are both directors of neuroscience labs and they are married. Because they had done research on visual illusions, they hosted a conference in 2005 in Las Vegas, and were reminded that it was headquarters for some of the best magicians in the world. They got the insight that magic could be studied to gain understanding of perception and even consciousness. They even became certified magicians. You might not be able to get through any of their scientific papers on the subject, but here (written with Sandra Blakeslee) is _Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions_ (Henry Holt), a delightful and illuminating book about how magicians in many ways take advantage of our brains' imperfect modeling of reality and what this tells us about how the brains work.
The immediate attraction to this book for many people will be that it gives magic secrets away. The authors have conscientiously marked all such explanations with a "Spoiler Alert," so that if you still want to be baffled you can skip the explanation. Of course you will be missing all the fun and insight, and it is hard to imagine anyone that would resist looking at the spoilers. Even more important is that knowing the trick doesn't make it any less of a trick; the authors still go to magic shows and still are fooled. The hardwired processes of paying attention cannot be overcome, but they can be hacked, and this is what magicians do. A magician who produces a live dove, for instance, knows that you cannot help but pay attention to the flapping of the dove. While the spotlight of that attention is on the dove, who knows what might be manipulated outside the spotlight? The authors describe with good humor and charm their attempts to become full-fledged performing magicians, and the difficulties involved. Skill with the hands is important, but not as important as you might think. "Pulling off these simple sleights requires about as much dexterity as you need when learning how to shuffle a deck of cards for the first time." The reason that a magician can so easily take your attention away from the mechanics of the trick is that we are so bad at multitasking. There has been a decade of research on multitasking, long before the authors got interested in magic. Multitaskers just don't get all the tasks done as well as those who are doing one thing at a time. Those who couple the task of driving with the task of talking on a cell phone, even if the phone is hands-free, are able to pay as little attention to the road as drunks do. There are wonderful examples in the book of magicians (or psychologists doing experiments) who do such things as literally riding around on a unicycle in a clown suit without being noticed because attention is elsewhere. Remember, too, that a good patter is not just the mark of a smooth performance; the magician who tells jokes, witty or corny, is counting on your mind to be occupied with the humor so that it can't do much else.
The authors have no concern that pushing scientific investigation of magical feats will make them any less magical, any more than Copernicus diminished the beauties of sunsets. In fact, they are doing what magicians have been doing all along: "Magicians basically do cognitive science experiments for audiences all night long, and they may be even more effective than we scientists are in the lab." And it may well be that armed with better understanding of how magic works, the authors can improve the effectiveness of their own tricks and those of other magicians. Their book reads well as a summary of a personal quest for scientific and magical understanding, and one of the best things about it is that it refers repeatedly to their website where you can see the specific magic effects themselves. Their book is a delightful tour of magic techniques; but in showing the techniques this way, abracadabra, the authors have induced the reader to learn some serious neuroscience as well.
If you are the type who is interested in how the mind perceives its world, this is an essential book. It was written by two psychologists who venture to find out how magic works from a neurological point of view. Through the explanation of several artful magic illusions, it describes how our brains process our sensory information, and how those senses can be deceived by very simple artifices. As one who both professionally and personally has great interest in our ability to properly perceive what is going on around us, I was fascinated. If epistimology is your interest, then this book is a Must Have.
It was as paradigm changing as Umberto Ecco's Foucault's Pendulum, albeit in a more direct and to the point fashion.
on December 2, 2010
If you are familiar with the prior writings of Sandra Blakeslee and her son Michael, who provided the writing talent for "Sleights of Mind" and co wrote her last book "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" you will love this latest product of a very talented mother and son science writing team.
Though dated, her prior book "On Intelligence" with Jeff Hawkins, was a quick and concise read that is still one of the best sources on the topic of reverse engineering of the neocortex. I was hoping that this latest project would stand up to the standards of her two prior books, and I wasn't disappointed with the quality of this project - it's just as good. Major insights are offered from a fresh perspective, and it's a speedy read that you can recommend to others.
The contributions of Macknik and Martinez-Conde are far from stuffy. They obviously have had a great time as a couple exploring their areas of expertise through the lens of magic performance, and with the kind help of experts who bring a powerful sense of depth and history to the presentation.
The material is original and it's been presented in a clear and easy to follow format with illustrations provided when needed. This book overcomes one of the objections that I had to Blakeslee's last book, which was the lack of references.
I find it interesting to see that Blakeslee has returned to the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix for this new project, which was also the source of some of the best materials in The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. For more on this back story, you may wish to refer to two interviews of Blakeslee by Ginger Campbell see brainsciencepodcast.com episodes 21 and 23 for more on that project. My take on the the chicanery that can take place in the brain comes from experiences with handedness reversals, as discussed in "Hidden Handedness" which provides yet another illustration of the principle that our brains are the true virtuoso virtual reality machines, the place where the best magic shows are always happening.
My thanks to all of the team members who worked together to produce this important book.
on January 11, 2011
I'm an amateur magician and a scientist and found this book to be fascinating from both perspectives. It is fun to read and interesting and informative for both magicians and non-magicians. Much of the discussion about perception, attention, memory etc. magicians have learned to exploit as have salespeople, con artists etc. (as pointed out in this book). Besides being a very interesting and entertaining book to read, the observations and insights are important and useful in many non-magical contexts. I've recommended this book to many of my friends whether or not they are magicians or scientists.
on June 8, 2013
While this book is not simple simply put this book is about how our mind perceives (underscore perceives) the physical world around us primarily through the integration of our visual system in combination with other systems. The primary way that this is explored is, voila! through the art and spectacle of magic (but strictly defined as those practitioners who deal in illusions, sleights, and memory and expectational manipulations; this is not to be confused by the hucksters who claim supernatural power or innate abilities to seemingly defy reality).
I was tempted to end my review at that summary sentence but...nah, I'll go on. "Sleights of Mind" was researched and written by a scientific husband and wife duo (Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at BNI and her husband, Stephen Macknik, Ph.D., is the director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute) and, while many of the concepts are clear if not completely concise and the writing flows (if you don't stop and read shadowed blocks that are interesting asides about applications or examples of what they're currently talking about), the technical jargon is kept to a minimum and much of what is said could have been said in shorter or condensed form. But here we have what the duo no doubt experienced repeatedly and highlight and that is that magic and illusions are just as much about showmanship and misdirection as they are about the tricks of the trades themselves. As such Macknik and Conde include healthy portions of schtick, describing in detail quite a few illusionists from the way that they dress and present themselves to their audiences visually as well as mannerisms that they employ and jokes that they use. While I was expecting that the most interesting part of the book would be finding out about how our brain works it turns out that the discussions of the magicians/ illusionists was for me the most interesting.
Conde & Macknik also go to lengths to describe how the magic is accomplished, giving many "spoiler alerts". Perhaps it was just me but I couldn't wrap my head around many of the tricks that they were describing as I couldn't adequately visually picture them based on the descriptions. I wonder if other people had the same experience?
Overall I was very glad to have purchased this book. I work in the field of psychology with adolescents and some of the information herein has been helpful in that it can help me point out more concrete ways in which their information systems can foul them (and others) up and how we can possibly avoid this sometimes by increasing our awareness of such phenomena. But I didn't come away having learned anything really substantially new about neuroscience (now about magic, I did) and in that I was a little disappointed. Still, an enjoyable read, not overly technical, and fairly highly recommended.
* One last note: Though not their primary purpose in writing this book Macknik & Conde present themselves not just as skeptics of the highest order, demythologizing "magic", but as worshippers of the material sciences and devout believers that there are no actual supernatural or spiritual (as in suggesting another realm or reality outside of the material world); they believe that through dedicated study and practice the secrets of the universe can be unlocked and that there are no secrets outside of the material universe. They don't state this outright anywhere but these assumptions are presented clearly enough in a number of ways and are taken for granted by the authors. This is not surprising. But if you are a believer (you have a religious worldview of some sort, such as being Muslim or Buddhist or Christian, or if you simply believe in a non-materialistic spiritual realm and are strongly influenced by horoscopes or psychics) you might be set back or bothered a little by some of their presentations or assertions.
on June 8, 2011
on what you're looking for. If you want an explanation of magic in terms of neuroscience, it's good; if you want to understand neuroscience better by understanding magic, it's disappointing.
The descriptions of the magic are a little breathless but clear.
What the magic reveals about neurocognition is presented in a short-hand way that non-specialists may find unhelpful.
Little of the authors' self-reference moves the book forward.
Norretranders, The User Illusion, is simultaneously more engaging and clearer on the neuroscience underlying consciousness.
Caveat: I read through page 54 and skimmed from there to the end.
on January 30, 2014
Having just read a remarkable book by the writer/physicist/magician Alex Stone, called "Fooling Houdini" a friend of mine recommended I should also read "Sleights of Mind" by the husband and wife team of Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde. What started out as a potential gold mine of facts pertaining to neuroscience interlaced with secrets of illusion practiced by magicians, turned into something quite different. With a couple of anecdotal connections Stephen and Susanna discovered between their training in neuroscience and how magicians have been tricking the human mind for centuries, they headed off on a year long crusade to discover how the mechanisms of our brain are fooled by magicians. A seemingly interesting topic. What results, however, fails to reveal much science but does reveal a whole lot of magic secrets. This book would sell as a cheat sheet for those wanting to spoil magic even without any of the explanatory scientific claims that have been scattered here and there.
Apparently the scientific team, through their own sleights of mind, was able to gain the confidence of a few leading and well meaning magicians into revealing their hard earned magical techniques in the "Interest of Science". This has to be the con of the century. I would caution all further magicians who work with any scientific research team to fully understand the science they think they are supporting prior to revealing the secrets of their livelihood. Particularly if their secrets are going to be published. Remember, scientists have an overwhelming urge to publish. It's dubious that instead of publishing science, they've published a book that reveals magic tricks.
Alex Stone, on the other hand, is an honest magician who provides a fascinating story about life in the magic business. In the process, he reveals some secrets, but those reveals are necessary for his readers to understand what constitutes the culture of magic. It is wholly necessary and important. Magicians, you see, love the trick, just as much as we love the trick even though we are fooled, and even though, what we perceive has nothing to do with what actually happened in our presence. To Macknik and Martinez-Conde that constitutes something scientific to be studied. It's the same as studying a pig staring at a wrist watch.
Take spoon bending for instance. Spoon bending is treated in both books. In the magic book Mr. Stone explains the craft necessary to accomplish the trick. In the science book, our research team debunks the use of telekinesis, the method claimed by the spoon bender, solely on the fact that the spoon bending is a trick. Basically they are saying, look, it's not telekinesis, it's a trick, they are not bending spoons with their mind the spoons are already bent, it's an optical illusion and this is how it's accomplished. You are being fooled because your brain can't detect that you are being fooled. This is where I start cussing like the comedian Lewis Black...
What's even more dubious about this book is that the research team takes their science one step further...they are not forceful in their assertions but they do point out, without apology, that the phenomenon that is our consciousness, which gives rise to our "free will", is the biggest illusion of them all. So, provided what the authors say is true, magic reveals chinks in our sensory and perception system that can be exploited. These chinks are flaws in our humanness and point to the fact that we are essentially very sophisticated and highly evolved machines. Magic, is no different from what would occur if we were a video camera, powered on and staring at a black top-hat. Someone then shuts us off (the camera) and then quickly places a rabbit in the top-hat. Then, when they switch the camera back on, behold, a rabbit is magically pulled out of a hat. Magic therefore leads directly to Descartes's, "I think, therefore I am" becoming "I can be fooled, therefore I am not". This is far from science and they have not proved much, just produced a theory they believe their science has definitively proved. In the end this book is simply a bunch of magic trick revealed. One star for the science and five stars because, right or wrong, they reveal a ton of juicy secrets about magic. They successfully fooled the magicians. Three stars overall.
on October 6, 2015
Sleights of Mind explains magic tricks by telling one about the shortcuts, limits, and programming of brain (and attendant sensory systems) that facilitate such tricks. The reader needn’t be concerned that the book will spoil all the illusionists’ secrets for one. The authors carefully demarcate the beginnings and endings of spoiler sections that explicitly explain tricks. This allows a reader to skip over such sections if one doesn’t want to know the trick. I suspect few readers do skip the spoiler sections because that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the neuroscientific concepts being discussed. The spoiler sections are an attempt to comply with the magician’s code (the neuroscientist authors became magicians themselves) and to maintain a good relationships with the many magicians (some, like Teller or the Amaz!ng Randi, quite famous) who cooperated in the writing of the book.
Over 12 chapters, the authors explain the neuroscience of how various classes of illusion work. Most of the chapters address a specific class or subclass of illusion. The first few chapters deal with visual illusions. We look at the world in what seems like crystal clarity (at least with glasses on or contacts in), but there are many limitations and gaps in our visual processing system. While it seems like we are directly seeing the world around us, in point of fact, our visual experience is a product of the brain reconstructing information that the eyes take in—and it doesn’t do it as perfectly as our brain tricks us into believing. As the authors state it, “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise.” Chapter 3, deals with illusion in art, which is little outside the theme of the book, but it offers an opportunity to explain some intriguing facts about how the brain and eyes work in concert.
The next couple chapters (Ch. 4 and 5) deal with cognitive illusions. Just like our visual system, our conscious minds save energy by engaging in short-cuts that disguise the mind’s limits while offering the possibility of manipulation. The brain also works hard to reconcile what appear to be inconsistencies, and often this reconciliation leads us astray. Misdirection is discussed in detail. Our minds are primed to let certain actions and sensory inputs draw its attention, and humans are awful at paying attention to more than one input stream at a time. Teller explains that, “Action is motion with a purpose.” So, if one can give one’s movement a purpose (even scratching one’s chin) it will be ignored while movements seemingly without purpose are anomalous and draw attention. The authors introduce the reader to mirror neurons—the part of our brains that take observations of another’s actions and makes forecasts about that person’s intent. This system is highly hackable by magicians.
Chapter 5 informs us that we aren’t as good at multitasking as we think—which is to say we completely stink at it but tend to think we are awesome multitaskers. The gorilla experiment is offered as a prime example of this situation. In the gorilla experiment, about half-a-dozen people, moving around randomly, pass a ball / balls among themselves. The subject is asked to count the number of passes. In the middle of this activity a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the rapidly moving passers. When asked whether they saw the gorilla, most people say they didn’t (and those who do see the gorilla invariably offer a count of passes that is vastly off the mark.) [If this is either unclear or unbelievable, you can YouTube it.]
Chapter 6 examines multisensory illusions. The quintessential example is how our brains lead us believe that the sound of a ventriloquist’s voice is coming from the moving lips of a dummy. (Also, it seems like voices are coming from the lips of actors on screen in the movies, even though the speakers are probably off to the side in the walls or ceiling.) Synesthesia (cross-wiring between senses and brain such that some people may always see the number 5 in red or hear a C-sharp in green) is introduced to the reader.
Chapter 7 explores the illusions of memory. Just as with our vision and attention, our memories aren’t as indelible as they seem to be. We think we’re calling up a transcription of the events of our lives, but really we’re remembering the last remembrance of said event. This can lead to a migration / distortion of events in the same manner as the kid’s experiment whereby one whispers a phrase into the ear of the kid in the next chair and it traverses the classroom. The original sentence “The cat is on the windowsill” invariably becomes something like “Lenny Kravitz steals puppies from the till.” (Have you ever experienced a situation in which a person remembers the details of an event substantially differently from yourself even if the broad brushstrokes are the same?) Some entertainers use pneumonic tricks to convince audiences that they have supernatural mental abilities when—in fact—they have merely turned understanding of memory to their advantage.
Chapter 8 considers how in-built expectations and assumptions are exploited by magicians and mentalists. Again, these methods work because our brains employ all sorts of energy-saving shortcuts. For example, our brains often do the same thing as Google’s search engine—filling in the blanks by taking advantage of one’s experience to avoid the need for costly cognitive processing.
Chapter 9 explains that our “free choices” are often not so “free” as we think. One of the most disconcerting, yet intriguing, facts to come from the onslaught of brain imaging studies since the 1990’s is that our decisions are made on a subconscious level before our conscious minds are even aware the decision has been made. Prior to this, we’d always been under the misapprehension that we are consciously making all these decisions--big and small--because the conscious mind is just a big credit stealer (to be fair, the conscious mind doesn’t recognize that it’s so out of the loop in decision making.) So many of our decisions are made in predictable ways by emotional / automated responses, and mentalists use that fact to their advantage.
Chapter 10 is a catchall for topics that didn’t fit into earlier chapters, including hypnosis, superstitions, and the gambler’s fallacy (i.e. the idea that a roulette number that hasn’t come up in a while [or slot machine that hasn’t paid off recently] is bound to pay soon—regardless of the probability distribution that actually rules the outcome.)
The remainder of the book tells the story of the author’s try-out for a magic society and discusses the question of whether knowing the neurological and psychological roots of magic tricks will kill magic as a source of entertainment. I found the latter to be the more interesting discussion. The authors are optimistic about magic’s survival, and offer good reasons. After all, almost nobody believes that magicians are conducting supernatural activities [not even people who take some wildly unsubstantiated beliefs as givens.] Even knowing how the tricks work doesn’t create the ability to see through the tricks because so many of the factors that magicians exploit operate on a subconsciously programmed level, and such proclivities would have to be trained away. People who want to enjoy the spectacle of magic aren’t likely to go to the trouble of training themselves in that way.
I enjoyed this book even though I’m not particularly a fan of magic—though I did find myself watching quite a few YouTube clips of the magicians mentioned in the book. If you’re interested in how one’s mind and sensory systems work, and the limitations of those systems, you’ll find this book worthwhile. If you’re into magic, you’ll like it all the more so.
on April 15, 2013
This is one of the most delightful books I've read in a while. As a big fan of both neuroscience and magic, I was very curious what Macknick, Martinez-Conde and Blakeslee had come up with. Expectations were thoroughly exceeded, and several times I laughed loud enough to wake up my neighbors.
The authors, top-notch neuroscientists in their own right, had access both to world-class scientists and magicians, who generously shared insights and, yes, secrets -- real secrets of magic that have been kept hidden for decades. Artfully and delightfully, through a series of vignettes interweaving magic history and current performers, the authors reveal the neuroscience behind how magic tricks work.
Some of these tricks you may have seen and been befuddled by for years: disappearing coins; the ball and cup routine; mentalism; card predictions, transformations, disappearances; women being sawed in half; ventriloquism; and a whole lot more. On the way to understanding these sleights, you get to meet the colorful and brilliant practitioners of the art: Apollo Robbins, the world's greatest pickpocket; mentalist Max Maven; Magician & Debunker The Amaz!ng Randi (sic); Jamy Ian Swiss; Penn & Teller; Mac King and his bewildering coin-tossing routine; the Great Tomsoni; and many more.
If you're attentive and clever, you'll also learn some of the tricks and be able to duplicate them at home. Once you know how they work, your appreciation of the magician's craft can only deepen. The big bonus happens when you realize that the book is familiarizing you with a very important stranger in your life: your own mind. How is it that you can miss something happening right under your nose? Is your memory reliable? How about your vision? It's all in there. Macknick and Martinez-Conde, pioneers of the new field of neuromagic, have done us a great service by creating a delightfully funny, informative, well-intentioned work that helps us know ourselves a little better.
-- Ali Binazir, M.D., M.Phil., author of "The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman's Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible", the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 157 weeks
on July 14, 2015
The authors did a fine job explaining why magic works, as well as some basic techniques for manipulating attention (which is key to sleight of hand). I only give the book 3 stars because I read it too late. There is a fantastic TV series on NatGeo called Brain Games that reveals many of the same tricks and the mechanism behind why they work.