Magic And Brain: What Is The Relationship?

Magic and the brain are deeply connected. The brain can show us things that don’t exist … Or maybe it can?
Magic and the brain: what is the relationship?

The curtain opens. An illusionist enters the scene. Shows an empty cylinder. Several viewers examine it, finding nothing suspicious. After a series of magical moves, the illusionist pulls an egg out of the hat. How is it possible? Was the cylinder really empty? Is the hand faster than sight? The relationship between magic and the brain has long been under study.

When we talk about magic, we are referring to illusionism, not black magic. Illusionism is an art, it is part of the arts, culture, like painting, sculpture or literature. It is the art of deceiving the senses, the brain through games involving hand gestures, commonly called “tricks”.

The magic is in our brains

Curious fact: in a show of illusionism we gladly accept the deception. There is a tacit agreement between the magician and the spectator. According to this pact, for the entire duration of the show the viewer is willing to believe.

We know that wizards play with our mind as they please and that magic isn’t real. Still, we still enjoy the moment. This is the audience. Neurologists and psychologists could find interesting characteristics in the art of creating magical illusions. They study perception, attention, memory… in short, the limits of the brain.

Scientists have already begun to collaborate with wizards, in a fusion of these two ancient and apparently antagonistic disciplines: science and magic. And we say agonists in appearance because in reality they are not. Magic and the brain are deeply associated. Magic is the illusion of perception and perception occurs in our brain. 

Scientists are trying to analyze the neuronal connections of the illusions. They try to understand these moments in which objective and subjective reality do not coincide. This allows them to clarify the operations and mechanisms we use to build the experience of reality.

Magic and brain

Magic and the brain: the origin of an illusion

Illusions exist, we see them, they entertain us. But why do they exist? We could say that illusions exist thanks to the limits of our own brain. And also that the brain is not infinite, it has a limited size: it has a limited number of neurons and neuronal connections. As a result, our perception, as well as our other psychological processes, is limited.

When it comes to interpreting reality, the brain takes shortcuts, moves through simulations and masks the reality in question. In most cases it does this effectively. However, sometimes when he recreates something that doesn’t exist, what we call illusion arises.

The brain is unable to process this for several reasons. We start with two-dimensional images to assemble three-dimensional images at the brain level. This is done statistically, looking for the most probable solution, which sometimes leads to illusions.

On top of that, the brain is slow and expensive. It occupies only 3% of the body, but constantly consumes 30% of energy. To make up for this, he acts in a foreboding way, lives in part in the past and foresees the future to create the sensation of real time.

The experiment of the invisible currency

We will try to explain an experiment performed by the magician MacKing. This magician flips a coin from the right hand to the left hand. He then opens the receiving hand, the left hand, but the coin is not there, it is gone. In reality, the coin never left its right hand, but the public could swear they saw it trace a trajectory in the air.

Why does this happen? First of all, the movement performed by the magician is identical to what he would have done if he had actually flipped the coin. Secondly, the neuronal mechanisms of implicit movement make us believe we have seen it. It happens like when we pretend to throw a stick at a dog, deceiving him. In a way, the magician is deceiving us, as we do with the dog.

Another important aspect is that the study of magic tricks is useful for scientists. Clearly magic teaches scientists something. But what do the magicians gain from this collaboration? They become aware of the values ​​of magic.

Magic of the coin

As we have seen, and it is not an illusion this time, magic is for science and science is for magic. Our brain is imperfect and thanks to this imperfection it is able to see what does not exist and what exists. Magic and the brain are deeply related and without one the other could not exist.

If you want to know more about this topic, we recommend that you read the book Tricks of the Mind: Scientists and Illusionists Compared by authors Stephen Macknik and Susana Martínez-Conde.

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