Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research

December 14, 2008

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers' deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory.

This is a very interesting read, filled with scientific descriptions of how and why certain magic tricks work, but the details are just nerdy enough to probably not ruin any to-be-seen performances. For example, the following is an explanation of why a spoon seems flimsy when it's held horizontally and moved rapidly up and down:

The neural basis of this illusion lies in the fact that end-stopped neurons (that is, neurons that respond both to motion and to the terminations of a stimulus' edges, such as corners or the ends of lines) in the primary visual cortex (area V1) and the middle temporal visual area (area MT, also known as area V5) respond differently from non-end-stopped neurons to oscillating stimuli. This differential response results in an apparent spatial mislocalization between the ends of a stimulus and its centre, making a solid object look like it flexes in the middle.

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