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Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research

Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 9, pages 871879 (2008) | Download Citation

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the Mind Science Foundation (MSF) and its Executive Director, J. Dial, for sponsoring the filming of the Magic of Consciousness symposium and for kindly producing the supplementary movies for this paper. We thank M. Stewart for technical assistance and J. Otero-Millan for programming assistance. We are grateful to the Barrow Neurological Foundation for funding this study (S.L.M. and S.M.C.), in addition to grants from the Science Foundation Arizona to S.L.M. (CAA 0091-07), the National Science Foundation to S.L.M. (0726113) and S.M.C. (0643306), the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission to S.L.M. (06-083) and S.M.C. (07-102), and the Dana Foundation to S.M.C.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde are at the Barrow Neurological Institute, 350 West Thomas Road, Phoenix, Arizona 85013, USA.

    • Stephen L. Macknik
    •  & Susana Martinez-Conde
  2. James Randi is at the James Randi Educational Foundation, 201 South East 12th Street, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33316, USA.

    • James Randi

Authors

  1. Search for Stephen L. Macknik in:

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  4. Search for Apollo Robbins in:

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susana Martinez-Conde.

Supplementary information

Videos

  1. 1.

    Supplementary information S1 (movie)

    Johnny Thompson (aka The Great Tomsoni). “Closing all the doors.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary information S2 (movie)

    James Randi (aka The Amaz!ng Randi). “Accepting assumptions not assertions.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary information S3 (movie)

    Apollo Robbins. “Misdirection is the story that you make them remember.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary information S4 (movie)

    Teller. “Disguising an action as another.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

  5. 5.

    Supplementary information S5 (movie)

    Mac King. “It's a bad idea to do the same trick twice.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

  6. 6.

    Supplementary information S6 (movie)

    James Randi (aka The Amaz!ng Randi). “The Amaz!ing Randi pulls a “fast one” on philosopher Dan Dennett.” The Magic of Consciousness Symposium. Courtesy of the Mind Science Foundation and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness.

Glossary

After-discharge

A sensory neuron's response to the turning off of a stimulus.

Blindsight

A neurological condition in which a patient with damage in the primary visual cortex is unaware of visual events that occur in the corresponding portion of the visual field, despite exhibiting good performance on visual tasks conducted in that region.

Change blindness

The failure to notice changes in an object or scene over a period of time.

Inattentional blindness

The failure to notice a salient object or visible feature in a scene owing to misdirected attention or attention that is not engaged at a level sufficient to achieve awareness of the object.

Magic palming technique

The technique used by magicians to hide items in the palms of their hands (which are turned away from the observer), so as to make it look like the hands are empty.

Microsaccades

Small, involuntary saccades that are produced when subjects attempt to fixate their gaze on a visual target.

Saccade

A fast, jerky eye movement that transports the fovea from one visual target to another in a straight-line trajectory.

Smooth pursuit movement

A type of eye movement in which the retinal fovea smoothly tracks the position of a moving object.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2473

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