With the assistance of New York Times contributor Blakeslee (co-author: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, 2007, etc.), neuroscientists Macknik and Martinez-Conde probe the neurological features at work in the magician’s craft.
The authors do not deny the supreme artistry of the magicians they profile, but they closely examine the magicians’ most valuable ally—the way our minds work. Not so much the psychological principles, though the authors explore some of those as well, but the neural correlates: “Magic tricks work because humans have a hardwired process of attention and awareness that is hackable.” Macknik and Martinez-Conde paint the picture of a trick as it appears on the stage—a dress changing color, a severed head, card and coin tricks—then set to work explaining why we fall for it. These explanations—set off by spoiler alerts, which seem a trifle contrived, since that is where the meat of the project lies—delve into visual and cognitive illusions. Illusion is the rub: “a surprising proportion of your perceptions are fundamentally illusory…You believe you are aware of your surroundings but at any given moment you are blocking out ninety-five percent of all that is happening.” This is evident in both the way the eye works and how the brain filters the immense sensory input. The authors make easily comprehensible the effects of neural adaptation, afterimages, occlusion, perspective, saccades, inattentional blindness, expectations and the pliability of memory. Only rarely does their exploration fall short, such as in how the ideomotor effect works in dousing, or why free will is not in play even if some of our actions are instigated in the preconscious. Mostly, though, readers can test their explanations at home.