attention, illusion and magic

August 9th, 2008 by amy

I found a recent article: “How magicians control your mind” on magic and neuroscience more interesting in its exploration of visual cognition than its take on magic – the explanation of the pin-point nature of attention and how we essentially make up reality, especially.

…a new model has arisen over the past decade, in which visual cognition is understood not as a camera but something more like a flashlight beam sweeping a twilit landscape. At any particular instant, we can only see detail and color in the small patch we are concentrating on. The rest we fill in through a combination of memory, prediction and a crude peripheral sight. We don’t take in our surroundings so much as actively and constantly construct them.

“Our picture of the world is kind of a virtual reality,” says Ronald A. Rensink, a professor of computer science and psychology at the University of British Columbia and coauthor of a paper on magic and psychology that will be published online this week in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. “It’s a form of intelligent hallucination.”

The benefit of these sorts of cognitive shortcuts is that they allow us to create a remarkably rich image of our environment despite the fact that our two optic nerves have roughly the resolution of cell-phone cameras. We don’t have to, for example, waste time making out every car on the highway to understand that they are, indeed, cars, and to make sense of how they are moving – our minds can simply approximate from the thousands of cars we have already seen in our lives.

But because this method relies so heavily on expectation – not only to fill in the backdrop around us but to determine where to send what psychologists call our “attentional spotlight” – we are especially vulnerable to someone who knows our expectations and can manipulate them, someone like a magician.
– Drake Bennett “How magicians control your mind
The Boston Globe

Leave a Reply