On most days, neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde works with other scientists. On others, she’s teaming up with magicians and sleight of hand experts like Apollo Robbins.
Martinez-Conde earned her B.S. in experimental psychology from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and her PhD in Medicine and Surgery from Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. Along with partner Stephen Macknik, she served as the laboratory director at Barrow Neurological Institute before moving to SUNY Downstate Medical Center, where Martinez-Conde directs the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience.
But Martinez-Conde and Macknik are also members of the Academy of Magical Arts, better known as The Magic Castle. They are pioneers in the study of stage magic from a neuroscience perspective, and believe that scientists and magicians have “overlapping interests.”
Magicians use our own senses against us, and their manipulation of how the human mind works is how their magic works, with neurological “tricks” and misdirection. The human mind does not have the ability to actually pay attention to everything going on, so a magician or thief’s ability to direct attention is vital to their success.
There are many ways for someone to change your focus or attention. Martinez-Conde and Macknick have used magicians to look at techniques like active misdirection and joint attention, where they manipulate the human tendency to want to look where other people are looking. A magician is not distracting you, but using your own neurology against you.
Martinez-Conde has looked at the relationship between eye movements and perception. Even when we fix our gaze, there are microscopic eye movements that are a vital part of how we see. She also believes that illusions are critical to how we perceive the world.
Martinez-Conde and Macknik are also founding board members of the Neural Correlate Society and together they write a popular shared column for Scientific American. The two co-wrote the book Sleights of Mind with science writer Sandra Blakeslee and they created the Best Illusion of the Year Contest in 2005.
Written by Mary Ratliff