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Drake Bennett writes a piece in this weekend’s Boston Globe about what magicians and neuroscientists share in common, which Cass Sunstein points out is closely related to Nudge. Bennett writes:

As magicians have long known and neuroscientists are increasingly discovering, human perception is a jury-rigged apparatus, full of gaps and easily manipulated…A great deal of the success of a piece of magic is simply getting the audience’s attention and sending it to the wrong place – to a right hand flourishing a wand while the left secrets a ball away in a pocket or plucks a card from a sleeve. Magic shows are masterpieces of misdirection: they assault us with bright colors and shiny things, with puffs of smoke and with the constant obfuscatory patter that many magicians keep up as they perform.

Neuroscientists are so interested in what magicians have practiced for years that the New York Academy of Science has asked magician Apollo Robbins to make a January presentation on vision, and other magicians will speak to brain researchers at the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting in 2009. We’re still waiting for neuroscience’s debut in Vegas.

The vanishing ball illusion is one of the most basic tricks a magician can learn: a ball is thrown repeatedly into the air and caught. Then, on the final throw, it disappears in midair. In fact, the magician has merely mimed the last throw, following the ball’s imagined upward trajectory with his eyes while keeping it hidden in his hand.

But if the technique is easily explained, the phenomenon itself is not. If done right, the trick actually makes observers see the ball rising into the air on the last toss and vanishing at its apex. As (Ronald A. Rensink, a professor of computer science and psychology at the University of British Columbia) points out, this is something more powerful than merely getting someone to look in the wrong direction – it’s a demonstration of how easy it is to nudge the brain into the realm of actual hallucination. And cognitive scientists still don’t know exactly what’s causing it to happen.

Rensink is a co-author on a paper about magic and psychology in the current issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The journal is gated, but the Science news release is here. For videos of the illusions in Rensink’s paper click here.

Can’t get enough? Watch this 16 minute clip of cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel, a master of illusions, show how confused our minds can get – even when we know what is coming.


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