30 January 2011


Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, with Sandra Blakeslee. Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Brains. Profile Books, 2011.

A word of warning, if you love the wonder of magic shows and do not want on any account to know how magic tricks (even, one suspects, old and superseded ones) work, then do not read this book. If on the other hand you want to know what magic tricks can tell us about how we perceive the world, and what they illustrated about the human perceptual processes, then this book is for you.
The husband and wife team who wrote this book are neurologists at the Barrow Institute in Phoenix, Arizona who have been working with some of the USA and Spain's leading magicians and mentalists to work out how they, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously, use the gaps and short cuts in human perception, and illusions of perception, cognition and memory, to work their magic, and have persuaded several to reveal at least some of their secrets.

Though the authors' brief encounters with "psychics" at Sedonia, reveal that most of these are very poor at practices like cold reading, many of the insights in this book are invaluable for anyone investigating paranormal claims and in evaluating how much of what is presented in the literature is likely to have happened exactly as described therein.

This does not necessarily mean that someone with the skill of a professional magician is involved in these accounts; nature can play the magician on occasion, and often does. It should be noted that when tricks are involved they are not going to require anything like the skill employed by the magicians whose work is profiled here. These guys (and it mainly is guys still) have to perform to order night after night in front of often sophisticated audiences on the look out for how the trick is done. If they make a mistake and accidentally reveal how a trick is done, they can be effectively blackballed out of the profession and lose their careers. No excuses about the vibrations not being right or their being a sceptic in the audience for them.

The authors make it clear that what the magicians exploit should not be thought of as 'errors' in perception, they are part of the natural perceptual processes which has evolved to best and most economically allow our ancestors to survive in the wild. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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