Neuromagic 2011


Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of participating in the first ever conference on the interface of magic and neuroscience, Neuromagic 2011, on the secluded Spanish island of San Simón.  San Simón was the treasure trove that funded Captain Nemo’s adventures in Jules Verne’s classic fiction tale, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The island has a dark history. Once home to the Templar Knights, pirates, a political prison, quarantined sanitarium, and concentration camp, the beautiful island has now been recast, after almost a decade of renovations by the government of the Galician autonomy of Spain (Xunta Galacia), to serve as a center for philosophy, art, culture, and science. And now, magic.

The list of attendees was a "who's who" in the worlds of magic and the neuroscience and psychology of deception and illusion.  Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of the recent book Sleights of Mind, organized the event and spearheaded the difficult task of generating a common language to facilitate communication between the two represented fields. For my part, I expanded on some arguments recently presented in a paper in the journal Perception, wherein I highlighted a set of low-level visual processes which seem to provide the foundations on which many magical illusions are built.  (I previously blogged about one of these phenomena here.)

Additional scientists included Drs Peter Tse of Dartmouth College, Petter Johansson of University College London, Lars Hall of the University of Lund, Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University, and Luis Martinez Otero of the Alicante Institute of Neuroscience. The magician attendees included James Randi, DJ Grothe (JREF president), Luis Piedrahita, Kiko Pastur, Max Maven, Eric Mead, Jamy Ian Swiss, and Miguel Angel Gea.

The talks and workshops jump-started discussions about how emotions interact with attention and awareness, how we are misdirected by performers, how magicians create the feeling of mystery and awe, and much more. Humor, logic and logical fallacies, empathy, faked moves, decision making, the nature of belief, and many other facets of human cognition are brought into play by magicians and mentalists, using techniques distilled from normal human behavior, so that they rarely fail to succeed. Fully, 13 formal collaborative projects were launched among the participants as a direct result of the gathering, to more completely study magic in the brain.

Here is a short video (much of which is in Spanish) that came out of the event, including many beautiful images of the island. Enjoy!


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