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

By Stephen L. Macknik & Susana Martinez-Conde

Reviewed by Kate Williams

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The final section of the book is the epilogue, entitled “Lessons for Life: Bringing the Magic Home.”  For example: “Magicians know that multitasking is a myth and so they use a ‘divide and conquer’ approach with attention. […] For your best performance, do one thing at a time” (p. 260).  It breaks down tips and observations like that in a numbered list of key takeaways from the authors’ years of research, designed to be helpful in everyday life.

Sleights of Mind is great fun to read, a journey through the fallibility of our collective brains and the ingenuity of both magicians and neuroscientists in examining and exploiting them.  The wit found in evidence throughout the book is first noticed in the title.  ‘Sleight of hand’ is the term most often associated with magicians and their tricks, and so the authors used this recognition to plant their premise of how the mind itself is the cause of much of magic’s trickery, ‘sleight’ being defined as “cleverness, cunning, slyness” (p. 28).  The humor continues throughout, with instances like the following peppering the text: “…neuroscientists know as peripersonal space. (Scientists can never resist a good game of Pin the Greco-Latin Root on the Simple Word.) (p. 75) ”

With wit comes responsibility, however, and the authors are not remiss in noting that magic is practiced by a very secretive and protective community that is loathe to (and in fact has rules against) revealing the secrets and methods that make illusions possible.  There are two reasons why the authors feel they are not betraying the magic community by writing this book:

“Charlatans and frauds abound, taking advantage of unsuspecting or desperate customers who honestly believe in psychic abilities.  These customers are inevitably cheated of money or worse…there is always an illusion involved.  It’s our job to discover how they work.” (p. 41)

“…great magic is not about secrets.  Nor is it all about the tricks, or the methods behind the tricks.  You can find complete descriptions on the Internet of just about every magic trick ever invented. […] [A great magician] will be even more magical if you know the secret and yet the impossibility still occurs.” (p. 242)

To protect the unwilling reader from accidentally finding out the illusions’ secrets and to provide the choice of whether or not the mystery should be revealed, the authors have included “spoiler alerts” throughout the book.  Before each section that contains a magician’s “secret,” the reader is warned (and also then notified when it is safe to begin reading again).  In this reader’s opinion, the alerts are the perfect way to walk the fine line between describing everything to those who really want to know the ins and outs, and protecting those who may want to know the general neuroscience behind the illusions, but don’t want each trick’s methods given away.

Regardless of the spoiler alerts, a verbal description of the illusions only served to confuse this reader in many cases.  There are complex physical and vocal components involved, and the authors thought of this, too—there are videos offered on the book’s related website, www.sleightsofmind.com, which are extremely valuable in understanding how exactly the illusions work.  In fact, there are quite a few tricks and experiments that sound entertaining enough to try out yourself or especially with friends (aka willing guinea pigs).  Look particularly at pages 38, 149, and 168.

The authors did have to navigate the territory between academia and popular interest, a ground which has been covered frequently in recent years (see: The Invisible Gorilla, and anything by Mary Roach, Dan Ariely, or Malcolm Gladwell as examples).  The book is responsibly footnoted and provides annotated references, as any science-oriented work should do, while also attempting to keep jargon to a minimum, to more closely hew to its popular culture aspirations.  The step-by-step explanation of basic brain processes could be frustrating to those already educated in the field, but on the other hand, at the rare points when Sleights of Mind does bog down in technical detail, the layperson may just want to skim.

Their mention of the usefulness of magic to the greater science community and the further research planned for autism and dementia implies a laudable social responsibility that goes beyond merely entertainment as well.  Overall, the balance between the two positions is commendable, and even experienced magicians may gain a more in-depth understanding of their work.

There are three constituencies to whom Sleights of Mind is especially recommended: aspiring magicians, aspiring neuroscientists, and those who are simply curious as to how the abilities and limitations of our minds can be explored.  There are sections, and revelations, to be appreciated by each.

Sleights of Mind
By Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, with Sandra Blakeslee
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010
Paperback, $26
275 pages

Psych Central's Recommendation:
Worth Your Time! +++

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APA Reference
Williams, K. (2011). Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/sleights-of-mind-what-the-neuroscience-of-magic-reveals-about-our-everyday-deceptions/0005842
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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