Sleights of Mind is a book about two neuroscientists (a husband and wife research team) and their attempts to learn and use magic tricks to further the ways that we can understand how the brain works, culminating in their attempt to join the Magic Circle. The authors stake the claim to be the first ‘neuromagicians’, but in truth all magicians are neuromagicians as all of them are using thousands of years of folk psychology to perform tricks that take advantage of our less-than-perfect, short-cut loving brains. Without experiments in a lab, magicians have, in their own way, discovered how to take advantage of our limited attention span (both in time and space with things like change and choice blindness), the placebo effect, false memories, priming, habituation and our propensity towards confabulation.
Magicians have laid the groundwork for how to trick the brain and neuroscience is only very recently starting to get to grips with why the tricks work.
Here’s Daniel Simmons’ famous Monkey Business Illusion:
There’s a strong sceptical, anti-pseudoscience theme running through the book; it’s not just about card tricks and illusions, but also hot and cold psychic reading, how pseudoscience and misinformation evolve and spread and - and it chucks in a discussion of free will, too. Each chapter covers a type or theme of trick, which the authors then dissect and explain with the help of an impressive list of world-famous magicians, including James Randi and Penn & Teller. At first I found the little spoiler alerts that flag the beginning of the explanation of each trick a little annoying, but they later explain that it’s their way of sticking to part of the magician’s code which states that the secrets of a trick should never be accidentally revealed; if you want to learn the neuroscience but not necessarily how the trick is done then you can skip the spoilers and still get a lot of this book, which now that I think about it, is great.
One of the best things about the book is, recognising that descriptions of tricks don’t do them any justice, that provide references to lots of videos on their site which show and explain some of the tricks they discuss. They’re a lot of fun if you have a few hours to kill and want to learn whilst being wowed and entertained.
Black Art by Omar Pasha:
Here’s normally mute Teller talking about how magicians take advantage of the brain’s propensity to start taking things for granted after repeated exposures to the same events at the Magic of Conciousness Symposium 2007.
There was little less neuroscience than I was expecting, so I’m not sure there’s much in it for people that are already aware of how the most common illusions work, but I’m not sure that the book is any less interesting for it because I got to learn a lot about the things like the history of magic instead (Harry Houdini became a skeptic after Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife tried to contact his dead mother and made a complete hash of it), and there are lots of interesting looking referenced listed in the notes which I guess I can follow up.
The book is also written is littered with personal references (like leaving their sleeping son, Iago, in his stroller whilst they go talk to a magician), which in some ways makes it a little more accessible than the average book on neuroscience, but I found it a tad distracting and irritating. The narrative also jumps quite frequently from being in the first plural to third person singular, which is sometimes necessary given that there are two authors, but still jarring.
A few quibbles aside, the writing is charming and self-aware (“What he calls personal space, know scientists know as peripersonal space. (Scientists can bever resist a good game of Pin the Greco-Latin Root on the Simple Word.)” and I’m glad the person I met at Oslo Skeptics recommended it to me. Even if you read the book in its entirety it won’t spoil the next magic trick you see; your brain is still easily fooled even if it knows it’s being fooled and knowing how the trick works but still falling for it makes it even more magical.