Mind Magic

Mind Magic

By Chandler Johnson

Breaking The First Rule Of Magic

Margareta Wahlström, the Head of the UN office for disaster risk reduction laments, “The key reason why a disproportionate number of disabled persons suffer and die in disasters is because their needs are ignored and neglected.” But hopefully through analyzing the causes, effects, and solutions of our missteps in disaster management, Wahlstrom’s words will serve as a warning, giving us enough time to avert the next disaster.

As Wired Magazine explained on April 20, 2009, Penn and Teller favorite part was that “the clear cups forced the crowd to confront the real source of the illusion: the hard-wired limitations of their own brains.” For a long time magicians have been creating illusions to manipulate the brain and just recently scientists have realized that they might actually be on to something. This is why, as the Society for Neuroscience website explained with an October 2009 posting, brain neuroscientists are now working with magicians to unlock the mysteries of our brains. As Professor Susana Martinez-Conde of the Barrow Neurological Institute, pointed out to NPR on August 9, 2008, “We realized that we had a very good and untapped resource which was the magicians. These are expert manipulators of attentional levels.”

With nothing up my sleeve, today I’d like to reveal how magic is helping us explain the way the brain works. To do so, let’s look at three classic magic tricks from both the magician’s and neuroscience perspective, and then finally explain how this breakthrough will help us offstage.

Altering Perception

First, there is the manipulation of our perception. Let’s look at Penn and Tellers illusion called “Looks Simple.” Performed at their show in Las Vegas, Teller strolls onstage with a lit cigarette in his mouth. He takes a puff, then flicks the cigarette to the floor and stomps it out. Then he removes another cigarette from his suit pocket and lights it.

However, when Teller turns to the other side so the audience can see what actually happen, he is not simply disposing of an old cigarette and lighting a new one but in fact, hiding and replacing the same cigarette without ever getting rid of it. How does he do it? The trick relies on the way our perceptual process works.

For years, scientist believe that our perception work like a movie camera, projecting one crystal clear image into our brains, however as Ronald Rensink, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia explained in the August 3, 2008 Boston Globe, “Our picture of the world is kind of a virtual reality. At any particular instant, we can only see detail and color in the small patch we are concentrating on. The rest we fill in through a combination of memory, prediction and a crude peripheral sight.”

On stage, Teller takes advantage of this by focusing our attention on the action of supposedly flicking the cigarette while he actually palms it. Our brain predicts what’s going on without actually watching to make sure. We see what our brain expects to see, not what actually happened.

Loosing Focus

The next area of research in which magicians might have stolen the show is the dynamic control of attentional focus. On June 24, 2007, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Pickpocket Extraordinaire, Apollo Robbins demonstrated the art of misdirection as he pilfered various items from a volunteer, even though, he told the mark what he was going to do.

As Robbins explained in a USA Today interview on October 19, 2009, “I learned that there are movements that instinctively draw the eye away from one spot and to another. By moving one hand in a straight line, it distracts the mark from the curved movement of the other hand actually stealing the wallet or watch.”

This idea at first baffled scientists until they discovered two systems our brain uses to help focus our where our eyes will look. As Professor Stephen Macknick explained to Wired Magazine on April 20, 2009, when we see a hand moving in a straight line, we use our “pursuit” system, which directs our eyes away from the moving object and toward the end point. But with curved movement, we rely on our saccadic system, which stays focused on the moving object.

By starting with a straight motion, Robbins is short-circuiting the saccadic process that would spot the pick-pocket move.

Magicians like Robbins love to take advantage of this flaw as he told Science Blog on October 17, 2009 that we’re your guides and our job is to misguide you.

Visual Blindness

Our final trick involves change blindness. This can be used to explain, David Copperfield’s 1983 illusion, making the Statue of Liberty Disappear.

Copperfield had a live studio audience sit 200 feet in front of the Statue of Liberty while it was ringed by lights. With a flick of his hand, Copperfield raised a curtain blocking the view and when the curtain dropped, Lady Liberty was nowhere to be found.

Did he actually vanish a 305 foot statue into thin air? Probably not. As William Poundstone hypothesized in his 1986 book, Bigger Secrets the stage and seating area was atop a rotating platform. When the curtains opened again, the audience was facing out to sea, they were looking at a second ring of lights that weren’t turned on until the curtain was raised.

But why hadn’t the audience noticed the stage turning? Because of change blindness. Scientist concluded in the July 30, 2008 Nature Reviews Neuroscience that dramatic changes in a visual scene will go unnoticed if they occur during a transient interruption, such as a blink, a flicker or a movement of the eye, even when people are looking right at the changes. The movement of the curtain and the use of the lights created the change blindness.

If you’ve seen the basketball passes and gorilla video, you’ve seen change blindness. As explained by the psychologists, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris who created the video for their 2009 book, The Invisible Gorilla, you’re instructed to watch the people and keep count of how many passes they make. After it’s over, did you see the guy in a gorilla costume walk through the scene? What guy? But when you watch the video again– there he is. Our focus on the passes creates a change blindness that prevents us from ever noticing the gorilla.

Magic And Science

Now that we’ve learned about the magic onstage, its time to take a look at how this benefits us off stage. The collaboration of magicians and scientist will lead three potential benefits.

First, it opens the curtains for better experiments. The December 2008 Scientific American explained that it will help design more robust experiments to explore attention and awareness. This will be especially useful when dealing with clever and highly attentive subjects. They won’t be able to ruin the research by figuring it out ahead of time.

Second, it’s revealing new tricks in diagnosis and treatment. As Professor Macknik proposed in a CBS interview on November 1, 2009, one can use magic tricks as a tool for early diagnosis of autism. Autistics, people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorders pay attention to magic tricks in ways that most of us don’t. Watching the way a child makes sense of a magic trick can de a diagnostic tool.

Also, it can help to develop new treatments. As the July 17, 2007 Wall Street Journal points out, the findings might eventually help doctors treat problems, such as “lazy eye.” Or when working with an Alzheimer patient, the methods of magic can help “trick” the patient to focus on the important part of the therapy while ignoring the distractions the create disorientation.

Third and finally, it’s helping prevent illusions from occurring off the stage. As ABC News explained on October 13, 2009, there are other real-world examples of illusions. Pilots encounter visual illusions while in flight, such as a false horizon, or when landing, such as a narrow runway. Scientists believe that this study could help us in designing better airplane cockpits and street signs. It’s one thing when an entertainer takes advantage of our pursuit system to trick our saccadic system, but when street signs do it, it leads to another kind of show stopper.

Grand Finale

Now that we’ve learned about the magic onstage, its time to take a look at how this benefits us off stage. The collaboration of magicians and scientist will lead three potential benefits.

First, it opens the curtains for better experiments. The December 2008 Scientific American explained that it will help design more robust experiments to explore attention and awareness. This will be especially useful when dealing with clever and highly attentive subjects. They won’t be able to ruin the research by figuring it out ahead of time.

Second, it’s revealing new tricks in diagnosis and treatment. As Professor Macknik proposed in a CBS interview on November 1, 2009, one can use magic tricks as a tool for early diagnosis of autism. Autistics, people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorders pay attention to magic tricks in ways that most of us don’t. Watching the way a child makes sense of a magic trick can de a diagnostic tool.

Also, it can help to develop new treatments. As the July 17, 2007 Wall Street Journal points out, the findings might eventually help doctors treat problems, such as “lazy eye.” Or when working with an Alzheimer patient, the methods of magic can help “trick” the patient to focus on the important part of the therapy while ignoring the distractions the create disorientation.

Third and finally, it’s helping prevent illusions from occurring off the stage. As ABC News explained on October 13, 2009, there are other real-world examples of illusions. Pilots encounter visual illusions while in flight, such as a false horizon, or when landing, such as a narrow runway. Scientists believe that this study could help us in designing better airplane cockpits and street signs. It’s one thing when an entertainer takes advantage of our pursuit system to trick our saccadic system, but when street signs do it, it leads to another kind of show stopper.

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