“People with attention deficit disorder or autism may be able to figure out certain magic tricks”
Analyzing how our brains react to magic tricks from a neuro-scientific point of view can lead to advances in medicine, help decipher how the conscience works and improve educational methods
Although it seems like magic, understanding how we react to magicians’ tricks can reveal how the organ that controls our bodies and minds works. This is what the discipline known as ‘neuromagic’ involves, and its implications have already provided new approaches to improve the diagnosis of autism and Alzheimer’s.
Neuroscientist Susana Martínez-Conde, one of the founders of this branch and a researcher at the State University of New York (USA), has worked in neuroscience for almost 30 years and has collaborated with magicians to study these applications. “Diagnosis, clinical therapies, politics, advertising, education: any sphere of human interaction is related to neuromagic”, said the researcher, whose publications on this subject appear on the pages of prestigious journals such as Nature. Martínez-Conde is also dedicated to publishing: the book Sleights of Mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains, of which she is co-author, won the Prisms House of Sciences publishing award in 2013 for the best edited book.
What is neuromagic?
Is a term coined in 2008 to describe the relationship between two disciplines that may initially seem very disparate – magic and neuroscience– but which do however have many things in common.
One of the main relationships between magic and neuroscience, particularly in the field of cognitive neuroscience, is the interest that both magicians and scientists have in human conduct, behaviour and perfection; to understand what happens in the mind of a spectator when they are witnessing a magician’s trick. This is something that from a neuroscientific point of view is fascinating, because illusions, both visual and cognitive, provide us with a very useful tool for understanding how the brain constructs our experience of reality.
Photo: Susana Martínez-Conde
What is the most surprising thing that you have found during your research?
The collaboration of magic and neuroscience itself. If we were able to understand from a neuroscientific point of view what happens in the brain of a spectator during a magic show, where cognitive processes are affected -attention, memory, decision-making, etc- we would be able to perfectly understand the neural basis of consciousness. This is the Holy Grail of contemporary neuroscience.
The illusions that magicians use on stage can affect many sensory levels, but the vast majority, like close-up magic and cardgames, fall on cognitive terrain and are based on manipulating the viewer’s attention. Directing this attention effectively makes us block out the rest of reality and we do not see where the trick is. Somehow, the brain is an accomplice to the magician, because it suppresses everything else.
This critical involvement of cognitive processes in the perception of magic points to it potentially being useful for diagnosing cognitive impairments or situations in which there is a difference in how a person pays attention. For example, we floated the possibility that people with attention deficit disorders or on the autistic spectrum may be able to figure out certain magic tricks better than a neurotypical person, because they do not focus their attention where the magician wants them to.
Can it also be used to evaluate therapies?
Yes, because if a person has an attention deficit and follows cognitive or behavioural treatment, or a medication regime that eases their symptoms, one way to study the effectiveness of this treatment would be to see if their response to magic tricks has changed. At the moment these are theoretical studies; when we have financing, we will be able to put them into practice.
What happens with Alzheimer’s?
It is a degenerative disease, so there is cognitive decline. We believe that they can take advantage of magicians’ techniques to be able to, if not fully recover cognitive function, then at least optimize what still exists at different stages and slow the prosper of the deterioration.
Have publications in renowned scientific journals and awards contributed to people taking you seriously?
Within neuroscience we had recognition from the beginning: our first article was featured in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience. The reaction of our colleagues was: “How surprising, how did it not occur to us before?!”.
What helped us within the world of magicians was counting from the first moment, and for that very publication, on artists and academics of magic who are recognized worldwide. It opened many doors for us and gave us credibility. Now there are many laboratories around the world working on neuroscientific issues related tomagic.
What other applications could neuromagic have?
In the field of education, if teachers were able to direct the attention of students with the same efficiency and skill with which a magician manages to captivate the public’s attention, it would be a big step in education. To do this you would have to have attention management resources and maximize cognitive functions.
There are also parallels with advertising and politics. In these cases, it is necessary to combat deception?
Science, especially scientific discoveries in basic science, is agnostic. But it is true that advertisers and politicians can manipulate our attention for less fun reasons than those of magicians, especially in this era in which we live that is characterized by scepticism and fake news. This is why it is essential to realize that we are gullible and our neural processes can be disrupted. Magicians are brain hackers.
In reality, we need our brains to be able to disengage for our own survival.
Naturally. Our neural wiring allows us a number of short cuts that enable us to interact with our physical and social environment quickly and effectively. This has allowed us to survive, because we don’t need to perceive reality exactly as it is: it would consume a quantity of neural resources that we do not have.
How does technology today affect our attention?
We are surrounded by technologies that mean that we have constantly divided attention: mobile phone alarms, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram notifications, etc. We may be having a conversation or working on a document, but we almost never pay full attention and we share it with the devices we use. This is also used by brain hackers. As the saying goes, divide and you shall conquer.
By Patricia Ruiz Guevara