Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quirky Insights

A recent paper by Stephen L. Macnik et al., appearing in Nature Reviews Neuroscience proposes that neuroscientists should use magicians’ knowledge to inform their research.

Magicians use Visual, auditory and multisensory sensory illusions in their tricks, but they also use cognitive illusions, manipulating people’s attention, trains of logic and even memory. The authors suggest that that these methods should inform and aid the neuroscientific study of attention and awareness.

An example of a visual illusion exploited by magicians is spoon bending, in which a rigid horizontal spoon appears flexible when shaken up and down at a certain rate. This effect occurs because of how different parts of objects (in this case, the spoon) are represented in the brain. Certain neurons are responsive to the ends/corners of the object, whereas others respond to the bars/edges; the end-responsive neurons respond differently to motion than do the bar-responsive neurons, such that the ends and the centre of the spoon seem misaligned when in motion.

Attention can greatly affect what we see-this fact has been demonstrated in psychological studies of in-attentional blindness. To misdirect people’s attention and create this effect, magicians have an arsenal of methods ranging from grand gestures (such as releasing a dove in the theatre to distract attention), to more subtle techniques (for instance, using social miscues).

The use of cognitive illusions-for example, during brain imaging-could serve to identify neural circuits underlying specific cognitive processes. This could also be used to map neural correlates of consciousness by dissociating activity corresponding to processing of actual physical events from the activity corresponding to the conscious processing.

Indeed, scientists too often become too entrenched in their own circumscribed area of expertise. We need do need reminding that a wealth of insight can be found in unexpected places.

There is increasing acknowledgment by the scientific community of the insights that artists have had about human perceptual mechanisms. For instance, painters intuitively knew about pictorial depth cues and opponent processes in colour perception long before these notions were established in vision science.
-excerpts from Scientific American

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