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.
From Rolling Stone:
In short, the story is about how Lt. Gen. William Caldwell tasked his Information Operations (IO) team with targeting visiting U.S. Representatives and Senators in order to provide more personnel and funding to support his efforts to train the Afghan security forces. The team, trained in psychological operations, apparently resisted the plan as unethical.
“My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. “I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”
The rub here is apparently about the difference between Information Operations and Public Relations which seems to entirely depend on who is considered an enemy, who get the Psy-ops and propaganda; or an ally, who get the orchestrated briefings, staged demonstrations and photo-ops.
“In March 2010, Breazile issued a written order that “directly tasked” Holmes to conduct an IO campaign against “all DV visits” – short for “distinguished visitor.” The team was also instructed to “prepare the context and develop the prep package for each visit.” In case the order wasn’t clear enough, Breazile added that the new instructions were to “take priority over all other duties.” Instead of fighting the Taliban, Holmes and his team were now responsible for using their training to win the hearts and minds of John McCain and Al Franken.”
From a Fifth Gradient Warfare point of view there really isn’t a difference between IO and PR. Preparation of context is the heart of either of these kinds of efforts. To my thinking General Caldwell gets that. He is trained (I hope) to seek advantage wherever he can find it and he saw an opportunity to use the resources at his disposal to improve his position in order to better accomplish his mission. According to the article he was even considering using his IO operation to create support among U.S. and NATO populations. That’s pretty bold but it certainly isn’t stupid. If politicians or anybody else is upset because they were the “targets” of this operation they need to grow up. The world is full of conflict and you are always somebody’s target. Any perceived difference between IO and PR is a polite fiction we use to convince ourselves that we are the good guys and they are the enemy.
Further Recommended Reading on the article at the always interesting Small Wars Journal:
On a lighter note,
Via Popular Science:
I’m not afraid that the Zombie Apocalypse is actually coming, but I do love the “what-if” scenarios that make it so interesting to think about. This article asks scientists if it would even be possible to manufacture a virus that would turn the population into brains-seeking, shambling, undead monsters.
One possible answer has cows going mad, or rather causes cows to go mad:
The most likely culprit for this partially deteriorated brain situation, according to Schlozman, is as simple as a protein. Specifically, a proteinaceous infectious particle, a prion. Not quite a virus, and not even a living thing, prions are nearly impossible to destroy, and there’s no known cure for the diseases they cause.
The first famous prion epidemic was discovered in the early 1950s in Papua New Guinea, when members of the Fore tribe were found to be afflicted with a strange tremble. Occasionally a diseased Fore would burst into uncontrollable laughter. The tribe called the sickness “kuru,” and by the early ’60s doctors had traced its source back to the tribe’s cannibalistic funeral practices, including brain-eating.
Prions gained notoriety in the 1990s as the infectious agents that brought us bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. When a misshapen prion enters our system, as in mad cow, our mind develops holes like a sponge. Brain scans from those infected by prion-based diseases have been compared in appearance to a shotgun blast to the head.
Now, if we’re thinking like evil geniuses set on global destruction, the trick is going to be attaching a prion to a virus, because prion diseases are fairly easy to contain within a population. To make things truly apocalyptic, we need a virus that spreads quickly and will carry the prions to the frontal lobe and cerebellum. Targeting the infection to these areas is going to be difficult, but it’s essential for creating the shambling, dim-witted creature we expect.
via Fast Company.
“Hence the workshop to try to learn how stories connect to people’s minds, how they influence or prejudice individual thinking, and whether the flow of narrative information sharing in a group can be influenced by an outside agent–all in a “scientifically respectable manner.”
Yes, that does sound creepy.
The workshop has three goals. It will survey theories about narrative data flow to work out “what is a story? What are its moving parts?” and more. It will try to understand how narratives influence security situations, asking “how do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict” and other questions. And it will survey the state of the art in story analysis and decomposition, with a goal of building a better toolset for quickly understanding the nature of a story, and “how stories propagate in a system to influence behavior.” “
Fast Company’s article approaches the idea with a tongue-in-cheek “Oh no, its 1984! / Mind control!” mentality but kidding aside, DARPA is in essence exploring a very central aspect of Fifth Gradient Warfare (5GW) thinking. These stories, these narratives, are consumed by Observation that interact with and trigger particular aspects and identities of Orientation. Call it psy-ops, call it memetics, call it spin, call it propaganda, whatever you call it these are all processes that seek to control the narrative in order to exert some sort of control over a targeted audience in order to create an outcome, and that is 5GW.
DARPA press release (.pdf) for Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts workshop, is here. It would be really interesting to have a 5GW-ist voice in the room.
The Underwire blog at Wired.com recently posted an article (pretty funny) that tripped my 5GW radar. The article involved the NetLife Research Bad Useability Calendar and June’s entry (seen to the right) referenced somebody I had, admitted, not heard of; BJ Fogg. I don’t know what persuasive design is but it sounds kinda 5GWish to me.
(Heavy linking to follow. All links expand greatly on the topic)
Dr. BJ Fogg founded the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and is the creator of the Fogg Behavioral Model (FBM). He also has published two books about the intersection of persuasion and computer technology:
Dr. Fogg calls this intersection “Captology” and it is the centerpiece of his research and primary application of his model.
Captology and the Fogg Behavioral Model seem to have a strong resonance with the nuts-and-bolts and the hows-and-whys of Fifth Gradient Warfare Theory in particular and XGW in general. It seems mainly to be applied to social media at this point but for a 5GWist that is a very attractive form of leverage for the manipulation of a target actor. I am going to have to make it a point to track down at least one of his books. Until then I will have to settle for reading his 2009 paper about the Fogg Behavioral Model. Further study will have to determine how closely 5GW and Captology/FBM really intersect.
A bit of Recommended Viewing as well that touches on social media:
By now everybody knows about Wikileaks. If you don’t you have obviously been living in a state of ignorant bliss and you probably stumbled upon this site looking for a funny de-motivational poster about a Llama (Go ahead and follow this link if this is the case. Trust me, if you have managed to avoid the Wrath of Assange, then good for you. We should all be so lucky).
Anyway, without discussing the individual “leaks” I was thinking the other day about their validity. We are talking about thousands and thousands of electronically stored documents that were supposedly stolen and then given to Wikileaks in order to create some sort of radical transparency that revealed what the Army was shooting at, what State Department officials thought about foreign leaders and what places might be really good targets for terrorists. Those that I have seen seem to be plausible in that they pass the smell test. They seem like they contain information and opinions that might come up at a State Department water cooler, or planning session. But are they real? What makes us think that any of this legitimate? Is it the sheer volume that lends weight to their truth? Is it that the slightly scandalous remarks (that are only scandalous if they appear in public, but are gossip-as-usual in an internal e-mail discussion) would never have been allowed into the public eye by government media massagers? Why should you trust Wikileaks as a truth broker?
These are electronic documents that have been, for the most part, removed from their original context. They are a collection of endlessly alterable electronic bits that somebody committed a crime to put into the hands of an organization that may or may not have an agenda. What if only one of the thousands of leaked documents is demonstrably, court of law, defying the laws of the universe, provably fake? What does that do to your trust level for the rest of the documents if any of them could be subtly, or not-so-subtly altered? What if half of them are verifiable, but the other half are ambiguous in their provenance? If none of them can be truly verified as genuine what if ten percent of them are altered or outright manufactured? What if all of them are pure, unadulterated, fiction? So what that the government hasn’t denied that any of these documents are fake. Would you really believe them if they did?
The bottom line is that information, raw information, is endlessly mutable. Everything you believe about what you observe depends upon all of the preconceptions you carry in your personal orientative baggage. If you want to believe something, even in the face of evidence against its truth, you will find a justification to go on believing it. That mechanism is hard-wired into our brains. Without a context (and sometimes even with context), you will create a context for what you observe.
Fifth Gradient Warfare (5GW) doctrines are premised upon the manipulation of Observation in order to create specific effect on a target’s actions. 5GW actors spoon feed information to a target that is intended, by design, to trigger a specific context for that information in the mind of a target in order to cause that target to act (or not act) in a particular manner. To my thinking, the idea of transparency is a mechanism to promote trust in the validity of information (or lack thereof) that is fed into Observation. It is fundamental in a 5GW world to realize that nothing is inherently neutral. All actors have agendas, bias, preconceptions and will strive to promote their point-of-view over all others.
Pakistani Media Publishes Fake Wikileaks Scoops by Joshua Keating
The only problem is that none of these cables appear to be real. The Guardian, which has full access to the unreleased WikiLeaks cables, can’t find any of them. The story, which ran in four Pakistani newspapers, isn’t bylined and was credited only to Online Agency, an Islamabad-based pro-army news service.
It’s actually surprising this hasn’t happened yet. The vast majority of the cables are still unreleased, but the newspapers which have access to them have often reported on some of the more salacious details before the original cables are actually available. (Take for instance, the famous “Batman and Robin” description of Putin and Medvedev, which appeared in newspapers days before the actual cable was available).
So, it’s pretty easy to just make up cables to serve your political agenda. If the Pakistani forgers had been more sophisticated they would have invented quotes or even mocked up fake cables rather than just paraphrasing. This, in my opinion, is an argument for just releasing the full archive now rather than trickling them out at the newspapers’ pace. It will be a lot easier to fact check false claims if we no longer have to rely on the Guardian as WikiLeaks’ gatekeeper.
“What if you could remove all the ugliness in the world? It’s not a hypothetical question. Researchers at Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany have developed a new augmented reality technique that erases images from real time video. Called Diminished Reality, the software can take any area selected in a video feed and use photo-shop like adjustments to copy the surroundings into its place. Where once you saw an object now you see the object has been removed. A piece of your world has been erased. Diminished Reality records video from a camera and displays the modified result on a screen with only a 40ms delay. To your eyes it’s effectively instantaneous. Watch a demonstration of the augmented reality editing program in the video below. I’m blown away by how well it works in these early examples.”
Talk about giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Most of the applications I have come across for Augmented, and now Diminished, Reality are gaming / entertainment and advertising in the form of virtual pets, virtual LARP-type activities, and virtual advertising banners that can be highly targeted to individual persons. This demonstration seems closer to the espionage application of the really ugly shirt that played a key role in William Gibson’s novel Zero History (my review here) by rendering the character wearing it invisible to video surveillance by triggering a computer program deep in the London surveillance camera system (see questions five and six of this interview with Gibson) . It may not exactly be to that stage yet though it seems to me this is a very long step in that direction.
Considering this is a potentially very long, twisty, branching and strange road, the ability to modify reality in this way seems to have limitless implications. The 5GW theorist lurking in my brain (and clapping on the sidelines), also has to wonder about how easy it may one day become to seamlessly and unobtrusively cause distortion between perceived Observation and actual Observation before that information feeds into Orientation. Understanding the mechanisms of 5GW may be instructive in harnessing this type of power, it may also be vital in learning to protect against it.