Magic happens in the brain

Thanks to Jeremy for pointing me to this article on the neuroscience of magic.

My dad was a professional magician in his younger days, and I grew up with magic tricks in the house. My dad taught me to palm a quarter and showed me how the finger-chopping-guillotine trick worked. And he gave me books about his hero, Harry Houdini.

I’ve always been interested in process, even as a kid. I loved learning how Houdini trained himself as a boy to escape from things. He taught himself to swallow lockpicks and keys and hold them halfway down his throat until he needed to cough them up again (he practiced with a small potato on a string). He taught himself to tie and untie knots with his toes. He learned to hold his breath for a really long time. You may imagine one perilous summer in which I flung myself into all these things with abandon, until I figured out that they required practice, which really wasn’t part of my skill set when I was in single digits. But I did learn to tie a basic knot with my toes, and I still routinely use my feet to pick small things up off the floor.

And I still love to watch a good magician. I’m not so interested in the big dramatic escapes these days — I find them mechanical at best and stressful at worst. But real magic, now, that’s fun. It’s what I like about Penn and Teller: they are magicians with a love of the art and the absolute expertise required to give us all a look behind the curtain without (for me, anyway) diminishing the wonder of it all.

I am fascinated by the idea that our brains edit what we see in ways that we cannot consciously control. That we have a physiological blind spot that we are never routinely aware of because the brain simply fills in its own guess of what’s there: we never really see the entire world in front of us. That the world we think of as real is in so many ways a construction of the few pounds of gray stuff that rides in our skull. It’s another kind of magic.

3 thoughts on “Magic happens in the brain”

  1. Wow. Pretty cool. I don’t remember ever hearing about that blind spot thing. Interesting. It reminds me of what digital camera sensors do now – interpolate. A lot of people know that interpolation occurs when sizing up an image file, but it also happens in camera. Digital sensors don’t actually see all the colors. Some pixels on the sensor are red, green, or blue. So the software has to fill in for the ‘blind spots’ and guess which color should actually be there.

    Maybe that’s boring, but I really didn’t know that it is actually just doing something our brain already does. Huh.

  2. And how cool was that to have a father who was also a magician? I bet your dad has heard of The Magic Castle here in LA. It’s a pretty fun place to have dinner – they have a bunch of shows every night and only magicians (or their guests) are allowed in. I got to go once and it was a lot of fun.

  3. Kelley – this was fascinating! Thanks for finding it and posting for all of us.

    So much of what you post makes me want to respond, though I’ve been so busy lately. Please know I often forward to colleagues and friends things you’ve posted.

    Been meaning to tell you….

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