Magic, Illusion and the Science of the Brain

Illusion and magic are not only the province of magicians but also of well-known neuroscience researcher Stephen Macknik, who will be bringing his unique perspective on those subjects to the University of Illinois.

Macknik will be speaking Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Beckman Institute on the topic “Illusions and illusionists: How to fool the brain with magic and other tricks.” 

As co-author of articles bearing titles like “Magic and the Brain” and “Real magic: future studies of magic should be grounded in neuroscience” Macknik’s research interests should be obvious. In Macknik’s view, however, nothing in our worlds is quite what it seems.

Macknik and co-author and collaborator Susana Martinez-Conde are Laboratory Directors of the Barrow Neurological Institute (BNI) in Phoenix, where they study various topics involving visual, sensory, and cognitive neuroscience. They are regular columnists for Scientific American, and have written for publications such as Nature, Nature Neuroscience, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their work has been featured in national media such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio.

Macknik will be speaking at 4 p.m. in room 1025, the auditorium, of the Beckman Institute, which is located at 405 N. Mathews in Urbana.

Macknik and Martinez-Conde write in the abstract for the article “Illusions and illusionists: How to fool the brain with magic and other tricks” that studying the effects of sensory and cognitive illusions is critical to understanding how our brains work: “by studying illusions we are studying exactly what the brain is actually doing, and not just what we think the brain should be doing.”

The researchers write that a good magician has the ability to turn the foundations of what we think of as reality – the laws of physics, probability, psychology and common sense – into liabilities: “Magicians are the premier artists of attention and awareness, and they manipulate our cognition like clay on a potter’s wheel. … By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how we work.”