Sleights of Mind: The Neuroscience of Magic Reveals Everyday Deceptions

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This is the second talk in our series of neuroscience events. A neuroscientist and a magician walk into a bar... come see what happens when Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr. Stephen L. Macknik take you on a journey through your mind.

Illusions are perceptual experiences that do not match the physical reality. Our perception of the outside world is generated indirectly by brain mechanisms, so all sensory perception is illusory to some extent. The study of illusions is critical to understanding the basic brain mechanisms of sensory perception, as well as to cure various neural diseases. The illusion community includes visual scientists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, painters, sculptors, mathematicians, graphic designers, and even magicians—each use a variety of methods to unveil the underpinnings of illusory perception. Magic tricks were cognitive illusions that fool us because humans have hardwired processes of attention and awareness that are hackable—a good magician uses your mind's own intrinsic properties against you in a form of mental jujitsu. The insights that magicians have gained over centuries of informal experimentation have led to new discoveries in the cognitive sciences, and they also reveal how our brains work in everyday situations. If you've ever bought an expensive item you'd sworn you'd never buy, the salesperson was probably a master at creating the "illusion of choice," a core technique of magic. The implications of "neuromagic" go beyond illuminating our behavior; early research points to new approaches for everything from the diagnosis of autism to marketing techniques and education.

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are Professors of Ophthalmology, Neurology and Physiology & Pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City. They are award-winning scientists in their field, and they are the founders of the exciting new discipline of neuromagic. Susana was named the 2014 Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience (the largest academic society on earth). Stephen won the American Epilepsy Society’s Research Innovator Award in 2013. They are the Illusions columnists for Scientific American Mind, the world’s premier lay magazine of mind and brain. Their fascinating work has taken them on a multi-year, worldwide exploration of illusions and magic, and how they can be explained using the latest findings of cognitive neuroscience.

In their book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions (published in 20 foreign editions and over 100 countries) they convinced some of the world's greatest magicians to reveal their techniques for tricking the brain. Sleights of Mind received The Prisma Prize for Best Science Book of the Year (out of 100+ contributors). Stephen and Susana are among the premier science communicators in the world and have made television appearances on the PBS’s NOVA:scienceNow, the Science Channel, the National Geographic Channel, The Daily Planet, and CBS Sunday Morning, just to name a few. They have also appeared on dozens of radio shows including NPR’s Science Friday and the Colin McEnroe Show, PRI’s The World, and many more. Susana and Stephen’s research and scientific outreach activities have been featured in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among hundreds of media stories all around the world. They’ve given over 100 public presentations about their work and they have published over 170 articles in some of the most prestigious academic journals in the world, including Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.