A cultural practice, conjuring, gives food for thought to cognitive neuroscientists

Ideally, the relationship between the cognitive and the social sciences should be a reciprocal one. However, and with some notable exception (e.g. Berlin and Kay's work on colours), it has been more common to see cognitive psychology inspiring anthropological research that the other way around. Still many cultural practices reveal cognitive capacities and mechanisms that cognitive scientists would be unlikely to stumble on in the lab. One such practice, with many cultural variations, is that of conjuring or 'magic' done for entertainment. A team of practicing magicians and cognitive neuroscientists is publishing this week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience an article entitled: "Science and society: Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research" (full text freely available here).

The Conjurer, by Hieronymus Bosch ( Musée Municipal in St.-Germain-en-Laye, France)

Just as vision scientists study visual art and illusions to elucidate the workings of the visual system, so too can cognitive scientists study cognitive illusions to elucidate the underpinnings of cognition. Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers' deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness. By studying magicians and their techniques, neuroscientists can learn powerful methods to manipulate attention and awareness in the laboratory. Such methods could be exploited to directly study the behavioural and neural basis of consciousness itself, for instance through the use of brain imaging and other neural recording techniques.

And here is a nice excerpt:

"The magicians authoring this article emphasize the use of humour as a critical aid to the successful implementation of many tricks. Their intuition is that when the audience is laughing it is as if time stops and the attentional spotlight is put on hold. That is, the magician can do virtually anything when the audience is laughing, and nobody will notice. Recording neural activity (by fMRI, electroencephalogram, magnetoencephalography, et cetera) in someone who is watching magic tricks that are accompanied by humour might help researchers determine the potential interaction between the allocation of attention and the sensation of mirth."

Think of magicians as expert in cognitive processes, in particular attention. It would be interesting to know to what extent conjurers in different cultures have gained and are exploiting different insight into human cognition, or even (in a more relativistic vein) are taking advantage of culture-specific aspects of attention, if there are any.

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