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The Illusionist Brain

The Neuroscience of Magic

Jordi Cami and Luis Martinez

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Our sense organs are mere instruments specialized in receiving externalstimuli and transmitting them to the brain, the only organ that actually sees, touches, tastes and hears. Light and colour are not in our eyes, touch is not in our hands, taste is not in our mouth, noises are not in our ears.

Our brains build reality. Gets incomplete data from world around us, and using its own knowledge about context, it fills in the images, reconstructs memories, shapes decisions. By adding details and filling in the gaps, the brain arrives at convincing guesses. But these guesses are sometimes flawed, resulting in illusions, false memories, biases and cognitive prejudices.

When focus attention on one partic spot, everything around it will be progressively neglected - we ignore movements made even very nearby.

Our brains cannot process two things at once. Our short term memory gets saturated and our ability to pay attention becomes inefficient. There are no true multi taskers, only people so well trained at a task that they can perform them efficiently. You can ride a bicycle and talk on the phone, but you can't text someone and solve a crossword at the same time.

Magicians distract by asking questions: "Do you believe in small miracles?" divides attention. Pickpocket overwhelms victim with speech and movements. Then, as he takes something away, he stares directly into their eyes. Cancels out capacity to pay attention to what else he's doing.

Digital cameras create huge files, which means storage and transmission problems. So use compression algorithms to reduce size, then transmit/store the file, then reconstruct it at the other end.

Our brains have a similar process - eyes take in far more data than can be processed, the data is sent down a narrow pipe (nerve) and is then reconstructed by the brain. But the brain data has suffered a huge loss in transit so the lost info has to be filled in. The gaps are filled with data inferred from our memories.

Brain processing quite slow - at least one third of a sec usually - partly bc info gets passed todiff parts of brain for interpretation, and is then re-integrated. To counteract this, the brain has learnt to make very accurate inferences. Notice this with goalies defending penalty shootouts, or tennis players facing a fast serve. The brain simply cannot process data fast enough to 'know' where the ball is going to go, so it makes a guess.

See the effect of habits when try to drive on 'other' side of road as a tourist. Instinctively look the wrong way before turning or crossing road.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle extremely credulous aboutspiritual/magic realm. He was convinced that Houdini's escapes were real, that he was deamterializing, even though Houdini personally explained his tricks to him.

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