Medical research and magic come together

November 11, 2010

The unorthodox research collaboration between two Barrow Neurological Institute scientists and some of the world's greatest magicians is detailed in a new book called Sleights of Mind.

Published by Henry Holt and Company, the book is the first ever written about the of magic. The authors, Barrow vision and cognition researchers Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD, and Stephen Macknik, PhD, with Sandra Blakeslee, a New York Times Science correspondent, describe at a fundamental level why your brain is so vulnerable to magic and how science can learn from the art of illusion. Aiding with their research have been renowned magicians including Penn and Teller, Apollo Robbins, the Amazing Randi and Mac King.

"We have spent the last few years traveling the world, meeting magicians, researching their art, and collaborating with them on our study of the brain," says Dr. Martinez-Conde, director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience. "Magicians do cognitive science experiments for audiences all night long and they may be even more effective than we scientists are in the lab."

Drs. Macknik and Martinez-Conde accepted faculty appointments at Barrow in 2004 and their research into vision and cognition is now a focal point at Barrow, the largest neurosurgical facility in the United States.

"We are on a fascinating journey about the neural underpinning of magic and the brain," says Dr. Macknik, director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology. "If we fully understand how magicians hack our brains, we will unveil the neural bases of consciousness itself."

Sleights of Mind includes scientific discussions on topics like illusory correlations, and multisensory integration. But it also includes insider details on specific well-known magic tricks and how magicians execute the illusions to fool the brain. "We've warned readers with 'Spoiler Alerts' on the sections that describe the secrets of the tricks," says Dr. Martinez-Conde. "If you don't want to know the magical secrets you can skip those portions."

Dr. Macknik underscores that while their magic research has entertaining aspects, it has significant scientific goals. "Our hope is that the results of this research can have positive impact on many neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and autism. The notion of 'what produces awareness' is the ultimate scientific question, and neuroscience is on the verge of answering it."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Scientists reveal new avenue for drug treatment in neuropathic pain

November 24, 2017
New research from King's College London has revealed a previously undiscovered mechanism of cellular communication, between neurons and immune cells, in neuropathic pain.

Small but distinct differences among species mark evolution of human brain

November 23, 2017
The most dramatic divergence between humans and other primates can be found in the brain, the primary organ that gives our species its identity.

What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

November 22, 2017
Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every ...

Team constructs whole-brain map of electrical connections key to forming memories

November 22, 2017
A team of neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania has constructed the first whole-brain map of electrical connectivity in the brain based on data from nearly 300 neurosurgical patients with electrodes implanted ...

To forget or to remember? Memory depends on subtle brain signals, scientists find

November 22, 2017
The fragrance of hot pumpkin pie can bring back pleasant memories of holidays past, while the scent of an antiseptic hospital room may cause a shudder. The power of odors to activate memories both pleasing and aversive exists ...

Pitch imperfect? How the brain decodes pitch may improve cochlear implants

November 22, 2017
Picture yourself with a friend in a crowded restaurant. The din of other diners, the clattering of dishes, the muffled notes of background music, the voice of your friend, not to mention your own – all compete for your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.