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Are you teaching magicians new tricks?

Scientists can obviously learn from magicians. Are magicians learning something from what scientists are finding out about illusions and how they work?

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That is fundamentally the purpose of this paper with Teller. He had an intuition that a specific maneuver he developed for the cups and balls trick was the strongest method he knew of to misdirect spectators because it included attending to a falling object. The idea was that falling objects are more salient than other items and therefore draw attention more strongly.

The study discovered that, in fact, other things that he did with his hands were more powerful at drawing attention, which Teller hadn't realized. So our scientific methods can contribute to developing principled effects in magic as they can be more accurate than even an expert's intuitions. That's not surprising in that scientists have known for decades that their own intuitions about psychology and neuroscience only carried them so far and, in the end, experimentation was required to really know if something was true. But we hope that magicians see it's value now, as we've shown that even a signature trick by one of the world's to performers can be informed by unbiased experimentation.

Moreover, magicians have begun to use specific demonstrations developed in cognitive science as part of their shows. For example, Penn & Teller a change blindness demonstration loosely based on Chabris & Simons's sublime gorilla illusion. Also, a magician in Spain named Miguel Angel Gea has developed an entire routine based on cognitive effects that he learned from us during our collaboration with him in neuromagic.

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We don't know if he's adapted his tricks due to our results... but that would be a deep trade secret at the development level and we wouldn't expect him to share it with us before he had successfully employed it. If he has, hopefully we'll find our in a few years.

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The only reason we know about Miguel Angel is that he both actively consulted us during the development of his routine, and he presented it at our second Neuromagic conference held on The Island of Thought in Spain (http://www.sott.net/article/245541-How-Neuroscientists-and-Magicians-Are-Conjuring-Brain-Insights).

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Another valuable contribution from neuroscience to magic is to provide scientifically-tested explanations of new and classical magic tricks. Most people don't realize that, in addition to magic performance, there is a whole field of magic called "magic theory", which refers to the explanations that magicians have developed about why some tricks/sleights/manipulations of whatever kind, work, or work better than others. Magic theory explanations can be very insightful, and many of them are probably correct. But they can only be definitively validated (or refuted) through controlled, scientific testing.

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Ask me anything journal club

- On The Neuroscience of Illusion

Who: Dr. Stephen Macknik, Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute, Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde, Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience, and Mr. Hector Rieiro, graduate student at the Barrow Neurological Institute.

What: Drs. Macknik and Martinez-Conde and Mr. Rieiro have studied a magic trick filmed in magician duo Penn & Teller’s theater in Las Vegas, to illuminate the neuroscience of illusion. Their results advance our understanding of how observers can be misdirected and will aid magicians as they work to improve their art.

Drs. Macknik and Martinez-Conde and Mr. Rieiro will be answering your questions live from 8am-10am PST, regarding their article, magic illusions, or any other topic of relevance to visual neuroscience.

When: December 17, 2013 08:00 am PST

Where: Ask me anything - On The Neuroscience of Illusion