Sleights of Mind: the secrets of neuromagic

Last month, I blogged a fascinating profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket with an almost supernatural facility for manipulating attention and vision to allow him to literally relieve you of your watch, eyeglasses, and the contents of your wallet without you even noticing it, even after you've been told that he's planning on doing exactly that.

The profile mentioned that Robbins had consulted on a book called Sleights of Mind, written by a pair of neuroscientists named Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde (a husband and wife team, who also hired science writer Sandra Blakeslee to help with the prose, to very good effect). Macknick and Martinez-Conde are working scientists who had a key insight: the way that magicians manipulate our blind spots, our attention, our awareness, our intuitions and our assumptions reveal an awful lot about our neurological functions. Indeed, conjurers, pickpockets, ventriloquists and other performers are essentially practicing applied neuroscience, working out ways to systematically fool our perceptions and make seemingly impossible things happen before our eyes.

The book is a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems; accounts of the meetings between illusionists and scientists that the authors organized; histories of magic tricks; exposure of psychic frauds and fakes; and a tale about the couple's quest to craft a neuroscience-based magic act that would gain them full membership to the exclusive Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

I really can't overstate the charm and delight of Sleights of Mind -- from the introduction to the extensive footnotes, it is a truly great popular science text on one of my favorite subjects. The accompanying website is full of supplemental videos, showing how illusions work as mechanical effects, scientific principles and bravura performances. The performers who assisted the authors -- James Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and, of course, Apollo Robbins -- are all justly famed for their skill, and the book is worth a read just for the insight it provides into their work. But it goes so much farther, providing both a theoretical underpinning in the neuroscience of perception and consciousness, and practical advice on how to apply this to your everyday life.

One interesting note: the authors mention a book called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, which reprints the secret (and long-lost) training documents that magician John Mulholland created for the Agency in 1952, which were used at the height of the Cold War by US spies to deceive their Soviet counterparts -- for example, details of how to use the "big move" of lighting a cigarette to disguise the "small move" of slipping drugs into a rival's drink. I haven't read this yet, but I've just ordered it.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions