Deceptology – how the mind plays tricks on us all

At first glance, magic and neuroscience are two disciplines we might not think have very much in common. That hasn’t stopped Melbourne magician and author Nicholas J. Johnson (pictured above) from combining the two in an innovative new show being presented as part of this year’s Melbourne Magic Festival at Northcote Town Hall.

Exploring the world of neuromagic—an emerging field in neuroscience that seeks to understand in neurological terms why our brains are fooled by magic tricks—Deceptology is designed to not only entertain audiences with magic tricks and comedy but also to explain how the tricks work and why.

Johnson says his own interest in neuroscience was sparked in 2009 when he was hospitalised with a chronic tic disorder, losing control of his facial expressions and movements. Overnight, Johnson developed multiple severe tics that caused him to grimace, screw up his face and click with his mouth uncontrollably. Initially the doctors were baffled, testing Johnson for everything from a brain tumour to epilepsy.

“I spent a fortnight being subjected to CT, MRI and electroencephalogram scans”, Johnson recalls. “I met with psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and neuropsychiatrists before finally I was diagnosed with what turned out to be a minor form of Tourette’s syndrome”.

“Throughout the entire ordeal, I never lost my ability to perform sleight of hand. I could barely form a sentence but I could still roll a coin across my knuckles and perfectly palm a playing card. It was as if by providing my brain with something familiar to do, something it knew how to do almost instinctively after years of practice, I was able to distract the part of my brain responsible for the tics.”

“…research explains how the human brain is hardwired in such a way as to make it hackable by magicians.”

In researching his show, Nicholas had the opportunity to speak with American neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, who appeared as guests on Johnson’s podcast Scamapalooza. The duo, who founded the discipline of neuromagic, provided valuable insights into why the human brain is so easily fooled.

“Their research is extraordinary. We magicians tend to be a little hyperbolic in our explanations of our skills. We’re performers and we don’t mind stretching the truth in pursuit of entertainment. You’ll often see TED talks with magicians rabbiting on about pseudo-psychology without any real evidence.”

“Susana and Stephen, meanwhile, have focussed on everything that magicians took for granted and provided a solid scientific explanation for why it works. Their research explains how the human brain is hardwired in such a way as to make it hackable by magicians.”

For example, in a process known as cross modal perception the human brain takes information from one sense and uses it to provide information to another. “This is the reason why we are so completely fooled by ventriloquists”, explains Johnson.

“Our ears can only hear that a voice is coming from somewhere in front of us. However, since our eyes can see the puppet’s mouth moving while the ventriloquist’s is not our thalamus combines the information and tells our cerebral cortex the puppet is speaking.”

A similar effect occurs in movie theatres, according to Johnson. The audience will hear the sound of the actor’s voice coming out of the screen when the speakers responsible for the sound are several metres away from the projected image.

In Deceptology, Johnson explores cross modal perception by having an audience member witness magic with their eyes closed. His hypothesis is that their sense of hearing and touch will take over, providing an image of what is happening in front of them.

“In a process known as cross modal perception the human brain takes information from one sense and uses it to provide information to another.”

“The audience member will feel the magic happen and then create a visual model in their brain for what they think is happening. Like all magic, it only exists in the brain of the person experiencing it.”

While fascinating and useful in a professional sense, Johnson says the research has also begun perpetuating itself inside his own brain. “After a while, you begin to see neuromagic everywhere. Every time I can’t find my car keys even though they were right in front of me the whole time I think to myself, ah, that’s inattentional blindness, which is often caused by excessive cognitive workload.”

“Everything has to have a neurological explanation. After a while I don’t even notice I’m doing it – which is another type of inattentional blindness.”

Deceptology runs from 28 June – 2 July at Northcote Town Hall as a part of the Melbourne Magic Festival. Photo by Shannyn Higgins



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