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Magic and science: Together again at last

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Not since the ancient days of alchemy have science and magic had such a harmonious relationship. Of course, I’m speaking specifically about neuroscience and the art of illusion—not the fictional conjuring of the Harry Potter variety.

"Most of the cognitive illusions out there have been created by magicians. So we can really benefit a lot by using their insights and learning their techniques to accelerate discovery in cognitive neuroscience," says Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist with the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

Martinez-Conde, along with her husband and fellow scientist Stephen Macknik are the subject of our recent video on the neuroscience of magic (see below). Joined by master pickpocket Apollo Robbins (who is not really a criminal, of course; he calls himself a "gentleman thief"), the trio gives us a new perspective on how the brain works as we watch the tricks and manipulations of the magician.

An article from Macknik and Martinez-Conde on the same topic appears in the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind.




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  1. 1. SQRT-1 1:08 pm 10/31/2010

    Wouldn’t this video be more meaningful if it included sound?

    It took me four tries to get to this comment window. Your links do not match your supposed scientific capabilities.

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  2. 2. SQRT-1 1:10 pm 10/31/2010

    Sorry, it turns out my cat disconnected my sound leads.

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  3. 3. ruggerox 2:23 pm 11/2/2010

    they do it with mirrors!…mirror neurons, that is.

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  4. 4. Befell 8:23 am 03/6/2011

    The male neuroscientist in the video said he was surprised at how humour could be used to distract attention. When he did, he provided me with further support (not needed, BTW) for my thinking how pathetic and relatively primitive (if not stupid) most brain scientist are in their thinking about how brains work to make us how we feel and behave (including think) they ways we do.

    That is, I see them (neuroscientists) as typically having a piecemeal view of their subject matter and that they are people who most sorely lack the conceptual/semantic tools (including a strategy of sem_antics) required for tying together the available (and relevant) facts and/or clearly converging clues about the ‘individual’ and concerted workings of neurons (inside of us) with the facts and converging clues about the psychological and behavioural manifestations of these workings and of such functions and manifestations interacted with our environment in our personal histories and how they interacted with examples of just a few different didactic categories of challenging environmental sources of sensory stimulation in our social and natural history – something which crucially helps to explain how we evolved.

    I am not sure if the same people (neuroscientists) are or will ever be ready for ‘the remedy’ that I propose. However, regardless I propose an explanatory platform-terminology (or framework of conceptual tools/lenses) that is broad, flexible, and deliberately designed for facilitating focuses of attention onto the naturally most missed (naturally most overlooked) aspects of how we function and of how ancestral populations of ours evolved to be how we now are.

    I do so partly by poking perverse fun at this naturally too easily off-putting aspects of our selves and our lives. [More to follow.]

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  5. 5. Befell 8:26 am 03/6/2011

    The explanatory philosophical terminology (or ditto way of thinking) that I propose ("EPT" for short) accommodates already accumulated and to be added in the future. [Without an 'EPT overview' such facts will always be even more unlikely to become pieced together into a both enlightening and practically - even politically - useful take on how we function and evolved.]

    The central and most integrative ‘concEPTual’ ingredient of this exceptional (explanatory in perversely humous way) platform of terms, is AEVASIVE.

    AEVASIVE is one of the least funny-looking of all the concEPTs (not all of which are acronyms).

    It was derived (through plenty of error plagued trials of ways to translate some intuitive states of mind into textual form) from both traditional terms and from more or less fresh (and more or less new) concEPTs.

    [What mainly - aside from an acquired mental technique/attitude of realistic acceptance of imprecise and conflicting but not essentially incompatible perceptions - came to serve and approximately fulfil my personal philosophical goal of gaining a satisfying encompassing, science-aligned (essentially rational and non-gnostic) grasp of mainly but not only the anthropic aspect of "What Is going on" (an expression largely synonymous with "the multiverse") was the possibility or opportunity to build an eccentrically entertaining yet seriously explanatory philosophical terminology.

    In other (even more playful) 'EPT describing' words:
    What got me to arrive at my goal was the possibility of obtaining a realistically elastic philosophical trampoline for reliably getting into the position of glimpsing a "Foremost Overview Of Truth" that does not in detail describe but does necessarily accommodate a string/M-theoretical type of mathematical TOE.]
    [More to follow.]

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  6. 6. Befell 8:27 am 03/6/2011

    In order to succeed (take the opportunity) I resorted to contrive ‘etymologically pioneering’ terms and to steep some of them in a spirit of (what I like to describe as) ‘SEPTIC humour’.

    SEPTIC is not a concEPT. It is only how I like to loosely allude to any relevant and by the process of science securely established principles, thoughtful interpretations and conclusions, and, by "SEPTIC humour", to the fact that that a seriously analytical thinking that results in a small set of explanatory conclusions don’t necessarily exclude a more or less simultaneous sense of humour.

    Some concEPTs (or at least one of them) don’t exemplify making light of a heavy topic by way of puerile or toilet-oriented sardonic SEPTIC humour. Instead, in some instance(s) it means a nice and antiseptic sort of humour. (Was mainly thinking of the ‘almost literally antiseptic, nicely humorous, and nicely conclusive, concEPT of "ALQholism".)

    In other words, the tone of the entire philosophical terminology is predominantly one of freshly pointed sardonic humour even though nice or more finely tuned humour is also to be found in it.]

    AEVASIVE stand for: "Ambiadvantageous"{-ly adaptive} Evolved (or emerged via this thus implicitly conceptualised sub-principle of the Darwinian super-principle Natural Selection) Veritable "Actention" (selection serving) System Incorporating {amongst much else – except that for this particular acronym-building purpose it is lucky that central nervous (actention selection serving) systems typically involve an important and instructive ‘category of ingredients’, namely:} Various "Endoopiates". %]

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  7. 7. Edwin_North 2:11 pm 05/18/2011

    You want to know the funniest part? as a magician, I’ve found that the easiest folks to fool are scientists. it seems the smarter you are the easier is is to fool and to misdirect you. This is evident in all the psychics that are ever studied, there should be a magician present to look for trickery (when a magician is openly about all psychics seem to mysteriously fail)

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