Sleights of Mind

December 21, 2010
Steven Zuckerman, MD

A review of the book subtitled "What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions."

What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions

By Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde

When I saw this title, I was immediately intrigued. Finally, I thought, a learned treatise on two subjects near and dear to my heart- Neurology and Magic. I feel somewhat uniquely qualified to read such a tome, having spent much of my waking energy to the pursuit of these two topics. There are other neurologists who dabble in the magical arts (Mark Spitz in Colorado, and probably multiple others), but few have had the fortune to spend time with some of the magical elite. I realize that my specialized interests also mean that I am perhaps the only person on the planet interested in the subject of this post (my impressions of this book), but I promise to delve into more clinical topics in the succeeding missives.

The authors are neuroscientists at the Barrow Institute. They apparently study the visual system and made their academic bones on analyzing and creating illusions—as in visual illusions that you see in books or on the Internet. They saw an opportunity to create further publicity and interest in their work by contacting the magic fraternity as a generalization of the belief that “magicians basically do cognitive science experiments all night long, and they may even be more effective than we scientists in the lab.” They go on to state, “When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have uncovered the neural basis of consciousness itself.” These hyperbolic assertions appear throughout the book and move it from the realm of scientific endeavor to “junk science” pandering to the lay public.

There are multiple neurological inaccuracies throughout the book. The say that an EEG can show that an idea of movement occurs in the brain at least a second before any recorded movements. I may need to confer with my colleague in Denver, but I don’t recollect learning that a routine EEG had the capacity to determine this type of activity. A patient with a non-dominant hemisphere stroke is described as not recognizing the paretic limb due to a neglect syndrome (actually under the broad heading of confabulation) without mention of anosognosia. In another section of the book, oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that is supposed to confer trust—an interesting, but yet unsubstantiated theory.

There are magical inaccuracies as well, but they do not require further elucidation (I could tell you, but I would have to kill you). Throughout the book, before the authors reveal the method behind the magic, they place in bold print:

“Spoiler Alert: The Following Section Describes Magic Secrets and Their Brain Mechanisms!”


The whole intention of this book was presumably to relate magic techniques to the relevant neurophysiology, yet they repeatedly place this caveat before each and every trick they explain. My interpretation is that by placing this warning, they feel their book will remain in accordance with non-disclosure policies of professional magicians. The fact that they divulge methods is clearly contrary to magician ethics, even including the above sentence. Do they believe that the statement will prevent or discourage readers from reading about the very subject that the book purports to elucidate? The authors have no pretense of humility regarding their efforts, feeling qualified to lay claim to the revolutionary new field of investigation, “neuromagic” (their newly minted terminology).

The authors did enlist the aid of very talented and perceptive magicians. They have obtained a good grasp of many of the important principles used in the successful presentation of magic tricks. However, the book takes forays into irrelevant psychological theories, such as a lengthy explanation of Piaget’s theory of childhood development, with no apparent tie in to the magic theme of the book. Further, the authors cannot resist describing their own participation in the magic community as well as their tryout performance at the Magic Castle.

In fact, in my humble opinion, the authors are clearly infatuated with the contact with professional magicians that their scientist standing has afforded them. It was this access to the inner workings of the contemporary magic scene that seemed most interesting to these authors. Any tie in to neuroscience—actual or imagined—seemed purely coincidental. I can certainly empathize with this motive. However, the neuromagician in me was left entirely unsatisfied with this work.