Magicians Penn and Teller perform an updated version of the classic "saw the lady in half" trick that still creates an unforgettable illusion. (Penn is operating the saw; Teller is his all-too-willing victim.) Neuroscientists are adapting the methods of magic in several kinds of experiments, among them the study of how the brain responds to perceptions that seem to violate all prior experience with reality. Image: Misha Gravenor
- Magic tricks often work by covert misdirection, drawing the spectator’s attention away from the secret “method” that makes a trick work.
- Neuroscientists are scrutinizing magic tricks to learn how they can be put to work in experimental studies that probe aspects of consciousness not necessarily grounded in current sensory reality.
- Brain imaging shows that some regions are particularly active during certain kinds of magic tricks.
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The spotlight shines on the magician’s assistant. The woman in the tiny white dress is a luminous beacon of beauty radiating from the stage to the audience. The Great Tomsoni announces he will change her dress from white to red. On the edge of their seats, the spectators strain to focus on the woman, burning her image deep into their retinas. Tomsoni claps his hands, and the spotlight dims ever so briefly before reflaring in a blaze of red. The woman is awash in a flood of redness.
Whoa, just a moment there! Switching color with the spotlight is not exactly what the audience had in mind. The magician stands at the side of the stage, looking pleased at his little joke. Yes, he admits, it was a cheap trick; his favorite kind, he explains devilishly. But you have to agree, he did turn her dress red—along with the rest of her. Please, indulge him and direct your attention once more to his beautiful assistant as he switches the lights back on for the next trick. He claps his hands, and the lights dim again; then the stage explodes in a supernova of whiteness. But wait! Her dress really has turned red. The Great Tomsoni has done it again!
This article was originally published with the title Magic and the Brain.