On the 5GW Bookshelf: Sleights of Mind by Macknik and Martinez-Conde with Blakeslee
What the Neuroscience of Magic
Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.
by Stephen L Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde
with Sandra Blakeslee
For a very long time I have had an intuition closely linking the principles of Fifth Gradient Warfare with the principles of magic. I have been intrigued by the World War Two exploits of magician Jasper Maskelyne and his Magic Gang. I have explored the fascinating 5GW aspects of Derren Brown’s chessboard mentalism (to this day I feel this is one of my best 5GW posts and possibly the finest example of 5GW on the tactical, operational and strategic levels). I have studied books that teach illusion techniques. All of these focus on how the magic is performed. None of them explores why magic and illusion fool us.
Sleights of Mind explores the why.
The authors of the book are Dr. Stephen L. Macknik; Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde; Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at BNI (and, incidentally, married to Dr. Macknik), and Sandra Blakeslee who is a regular contributor to the “Science Times” at The New York Times and author of The Body has a Mind of Its Own.
At the outset the authors invoke Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”; Niven’s converse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”; and a paraphrase of Niven’s Law by Agatha Heterodyne (“Girl Genius”): “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!” From there they go on to explain, through neuroscience, how magicians manipulate attention and assumption in order to manipulate us, to make us perceive the impossible. Sleights of Mind contains dozens of examples of magic tricks, the technical secrets behind their performance, and the neuroscientific basis that explains why it is that we can’t help but to be fooled. Included are in-depth conversations with dozens of master magicians (including my personal favorites Penn and Teller). It is especially interesting to see the back-and-forth between the magicians and the scientists, the former revealing the ways and traditions of illusionists that have been learned through trial and error, the latter explaining the unconscious mechanisms of the mind that make illusions possible.
“Magic tricks work because humans have a hardwired process of attention and awareness that is hackable. By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are at work in advertising strategy, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations. When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have unveiled the neural bases of consciousness itself.”
Sleights of Mind is as fascinating as it is informative, easily extending onto cognition, economics, memory, art and the things in our head that make us think we have conscious control of many of our choices. Anyone who has an interest in 5GW, and / or John Boyd and his Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop should immediately add Sleights of Mind to their must-read list.
More information about the book and the authors, including some very interesting videos of neuroscience and magic in action, can be found at the Sleights of Mind website.