Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sleights of mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about the brain

I've long loved magic - I have fond memories of the Paul Daniel's Magic Show as a child, and was chuffed to bits when I met the creator of the CBBC show Tricky Business. As I've become more of a biology nerd, the brain has always fascinated me, and so when I was perusing the popular science section with book tokens to spend, and saw Sleights of Mind, with an endorsement from Steven Pinker, I  couldn't resist.

The book did not disappoint!

One of the reasons I love magic is that I know it's not Harry Potter magic, but that there's a rational explanation. Even if I know (or think I know) how a trick is done, I love not being able to detect the magician as he pulls the wool over my eyes.

This book explains a lot of how easy it is for magicians to fool us because the way our brain works sets us up to not see things as they are. Take, for example, the amazing colour changing card trick, which you should watch before carrying on reading:

The trick works because of something called "change blindness".

The implications of the neuroscience in the book aren't just to do with being deceived by honest (or dishonest) conjurers. They have applications in the real world - for example, understanding change blindess has helped improve the safety of pilots.

Another great aspect of the book is that it provide links for a number of the tricks it talks about - it's all well and good reading a description of a trick, but it's much better seeing one for yourself.

The book also contains spoiler alerts, so if you don't wish to know the secrets behind some tricks, you can skip over those sections. I didn't, so no idea how the book reads if you choose to do his.

It also seems well written and accessible, even if you don't really know anything at all about neuroscience. Even if you do, it's well worth the reading as it's nice to revise things and, this book gives the concepts a different spin.

Well worth reading, and, I've no doubt, will make my appreciation of magic even better!


  1. Your link goes to Free Will by Sam Harris.

    I think you meant to link here.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out - alas, I evidently failed in my attempt at humour, which was to make a joke about being unable to resist and free will. As they say, if you have to explain it, it's not funny : )

      Anyway, it also highlighted my failure to link to the book as well, which I've fixed.



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