Friday, January 7, 2011

Sleights of Mind

Authors and neurobiologists (and magicians) Stephen L Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde have been busy. On top of their research, their conjuring and organizing the Magic of Consciousness Symposium (featuring lectures by Mac King, Teller, Apollo Robins, James Randi and others) they’ve now published the results of their work – ‘Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions’. It’s in the public library. Get it out and read it.

It starts off a little inauspiciously with discussions of optical illusions and black art (here we go again, I thought; how could this possibly be of use to me?) but it rapidly moved on to some fascinating and very practical work on the neuroscience behind misdirection (think you’re good at multitasking? No, you’re not. You suck.), straight-line versus curved line visual tracking, and change blindness. Remember Derren Brown’s experiments swapping people in the middle of a conversation? That’s the stuff. Not only did he get away with swapping people of similar appearance, but managed to swap (with no one noticing) men for women, tall for short, black for white and so on…with the hapless interlocutor not noticing at all!

They even touch on time misdirection. Juan Tamariz (these guys got to work with many of the big names in magic) performed a trick which culminated in a selected card appearing in a spectator’s pocket – a spectator who was sitting in the audience and had not even come up on stage. How? By loading it waaaay earlier in the evening under the guise of helping the spectator (along with a dozen others) improve their handling of a silly and unimpressive trick he’d thrown into the mix. Unmemorable, and therefore slipped right under the radar.

And there's more. Way more. Honestly, it's worth reading twice.

Even if you don’t take the time to read the book, go to the website:, and specifically go to their Youtube videos shot at the Magic of Consciousness Symposium and check out the lectures given by the above-listed big names:

Is the book fun? Undoubtedly. Is it useful? Absolutely. You won’t use every element they discuss, but it might well have you rethinking your approach to certain tricks. As Marlo used to say, ‘Magic happens in the mind of the spectator’. This book helps crack the door a little wider into that mind.


  1. Fascinating stuff, especially the demonstrations by Apollo Robbins and Teller (although I will admit that seeing Teller speak always freaks me out a little since I'm more used to seeing him in performance).

  2. I know what you mean - It's like suddenly discovering the volume control on a Charlie Chaplin film. Interesting but a bit disconcerting!