We all know the mind can play tricks on us. But how? Australian magician Nicholas J. Johnson’s new show Deceptology explores what’s known as neuromagic — a field of study that explores why our brains are fooled by magic tricks.
Johnson’s interest in neuroscience dates back to 2009 when he was hospitalised with a chronic tic disorder. He lost control of his expressions and movements, unable to prevent himself from grimacing, screwing up his face and clicking his mouth uncontrollably. His doctors took some time to find the problem, testing Johnson for a brain tumour, epilepsy and several other potential problems.
“I spent a fortnight being subjected to CT, MRI and electroencephalogram scans”, Johnson explained in an interview with Australia’s Daily Review. “I met with psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and neuropsychiatrists before finally I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a minor form of Tourette’s syndrome.”
“Throughout the entire ordeal, I never lost my ability to perform sleight of hand. I could barely form a sentence but I could still roll a coin across my knuckles and perfectly palm a playing card. It was as if by providing my brain with something familiar to do, something it knew how to do almost instinctively after years of practice, I was able to distract the part of my brain responsible for the tics.”
To research his show Nicholas spoke with two high regarded American neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, who founded the discipline of neuromagic. In their book, Sleight of Mind, Macknik and Martinez-Conde convinced some of the world’s greatest magicians to allow scientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain. They were able to offer Johnson insight into why our brains can be tricked.
“Their research is extraordinary. We magicians tend to be a little hyperbolic in our explanations of our skills. We’re performers and we don’t mind stretching the truth in pursuit of entertainment. You’ll often see TED talks with magicians rabbiting on about pseudo-psychology without any real evidence.”
“Susana and Stephen, meanwhile, have focussed on everything that magicians took for granted and provided a solid scientific explanation for why it works. Their research explains how the human brain is hardwired in such a way as to make it hackable by magicians.”
During what is known as cross modal perception, the human brain takes information from one sense and uses it to provide information to another. “This is the reason why we are so completely fooled by ventriloquists”, says Johnson.
“Our ears can only hear that a voice is coming from somewhere in front of us. However, since our eyes can see the puppet’s mouth moving while the ventriloquist’s is not, our thalamus combines the information and tells our cerebral cortex the puppet is speaking.”
Something similar happens at the cinema. Although the speakers are rarely beside the screen, we “hear” the performers’ voices coming from there.
Since researching neuromagic Johnson says he has become more aware of its prevalence in our daily lives.
“After a while, you begin to see neuromagic everywhere. Every time I can’t find my car keys even though they were right in front of me the whole time I think to myself, ah, that’s inattentional blindness, which is often caused by excessive cognitive workload.”
“Everything has to have a neurological explanation. After a while I don’t even notice I’m doing it – which is another type of inattentional blindness.”