What magicians and neuroscientists can learn from each other

Huffington Post TED Weekends features the editor of Neuron on why we’re so easily fooled by magicians like Keith Barry (watch his TEDTalk video here)

[caption id="attachment_26546" align="alignright" width="200"]Katja Brose, PhD Katja Brose, PhD[/caption]

Two seemingly disparate worlds collide in a new article on the Huffington Post TED Weekends page – the field of science and the art of magic.

The article is by Dr. Katja Brose, Executive Editor for Neuroscience at Elsevier’s Cell Press and editor of the journal Neuron.She begins by referring to an insight from Keith Barry, an Irish “mentalist” and magician whose 2004 “Brain Magic” presentation for TEDTalk has nearly 1.7 million views on YouTube. “Keith Barry, skilled magician that he is, doesn't give away his tricks,” she writes, “but he does give the audience a clue when he says ‘magic is all about directing attention.’”Dr. Brose goes on to present “the neuroscientific answer to ‘how did he do that?’” In a nutshell:

Only a small fraction of the information that comes in through our eyes is actually perceived by our conscious brains. Attention is the filter that directs what is most salient in our environment to our conscious awareness. Almost all magic tricks somehow take advantage of loopholes in attention.

Then, as she points out, things get even more interesting. She devotes the next half of her article to what neuroscientists can learn about the brain from studying the work of master magicians. She talks about the research of cognitive neuroscientists Susanna Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, who worked with Penn and Teller to learn some tricks and analyze their “neural underpinnings.

Magic shows us how easily the mind can be fooled, but it isn't just visual perception and attention that the magician plays with, but also memory and decision making. Many magic tricks also take advantage of the ability of the mind to be readily distracted with false information.

Beyond being fascinating, she says, this information can have practical applications in medicine.

By understanding the neural mechanisms for cognitive processes, like attention, memory and decision making and how they can be tricked, we can learn a lot how our brains work. We may also gain insights into conditions where the brain isn't working the way it should or situations where the brain even "tricks" itself, for instance, in neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, anxiety/PTSD. By understanding how perception and cognition go awry in these disorders, with any luck, we may even someday be able to correct some of these conditions.

Read the article in the Huffington Post.Watch Keith Barry's TEDTalk video here:

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