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Book Review: Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, with Sandra Blakeslee

Review by Laura Sanders

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Magic wands, fake drop boxes and invisible thread may be fun gimmicks, but a magician’s most valuable tool weighs about three pounds and sits in the skull of the spectator.

In their illuminating book, brain experts Martinez-Conde and Macknik make the case that magicians are some of the most skilled neuroscientists around. No mere hucksters, magicians deftly manipulate brains by sculpting attention, perception and memory so that the outrageous seems possible. 

The authors, both researchers at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, have a deep appreciation of magic and close ties to the magic community. The duo often draws on the experiences of successful magicians to illustrate the neuroscience behind tricks. The clear, engaging writing is interspersed with bizarre visual illusions, schematics of magical devices and deconstructions of card tricks.

When secrets are revealed, the authors conscientiously mark each one with a “Spoiler Alert” as required by magicians’ associations so that readers don’t learn any secrets they’d rather not know. Far from spoiling the fun, the book points to an even deeper mystery: how the brain constructs its version of reality.

The story culminates at the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, where the authors performed a magician-neuroscientist routine in a bid to win entry into the Academy of Magical Arts. Minds were read, salt was teleported and an entire brain was replicated. (In fact, the authors provide a detailed recipe for a Jell-O brain.) By tricking readers into having fun learning neuroscience, Martinez-Conde and Macknik bring the newly minted field of “neuromagic” to center stage.

Henry Holt & Co., 2010, 304 p., $26.

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