Research round-up 3: It’s magic

This is the third in the series of posts on research published in 2008 that I didn’t get a chance to blog about when it came out. The last two were pretty long posts so treat this one as a brief bit of light relief before we get down to the serious business of when people lie, in part 4.

Magic is mostly deception for fun, but studying how magicians pull the wool over our eyes can also teach us about how we are deceived by serious and determined liars. 2008 saw not one but two articles arguing for the study of magicial tricks as a vehicle for better understanding human cognition:

  • Gustav Kuhn, Alym A. Amlani and Ronald A. Rensink (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(9): 349-354

It is argued here that cognitive science currently neglects an important source of insight into the human mind: the effects created by magicians. Over the centuries, magicians have learned how to perform acts that are perceived as defying the laws of nature, and that induce a strong sense of wonder. This article argues that the time has come to examine the scientific bases behind such phenomena, and to create a science of magic linked to relevant areas of cognitive science. Concrete examples are taken from three areas of magic: the ability to control attention, to distort perception, and to influence choice. It is shown how such knowledge can help develop new tools and indicate new avenues of research into human perception and cognition. [Pre-print pdf available]

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers’ deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory. Such methods could be exploited to directly study the behavioural and neural basis of consciousness itself, for instance through the use of brain imaging and other neural recording techniques.

The NRN paper got more press attention, with extensive coverage in the New York Times (11 August 2008) and the Boston Globe (3 August 2008). It was also very nicely summarised by the always-fabulous PsyBlog and commented on by the wonderful Mind Hacks. Meanwhile, the TiCS paper, which got little more than a nod in the Boston Globe, was covered in more detail in the Guardian (25 July).

There’s some more background and links over at the web home of NRN article co-author Susanna Martinez-Conde and at Stephen Macknick’s web site. For fun, here’s another Mind Hacks post on magic. Enjoy!

Next post: Part 4: When people lie

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