Top critical review
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Overselling neuroscience part, ok as a light read on magic and psychology
on 11 April 2012
As far as pop science books this is way light, the authors are neuroscientists, but the book could be easily written by an amateur. Ok, theoretically one could say that about most books for non-specialists but there's something in many popular science books, perhaps the clarity of language and thought, that suggests the author is indeed an expert. Not here.
Practically, to describe the book, it goes more or less like this in every section:
a) Brief self-referential story about the authors, sometimes involving this or that random scientific, social or entertainment event they arranged (with some scientific pretext). We learn about the authors' website, the husband's projects, about the wife's Spanish background, thesis and pregnancy and other such things (again there's a loose pretext which connects to attention or perception usually. In fairness, the personal parts are not extensive, usually a few lines or sentences but they occur very often and are dispersed throughout most sections of the book).
b) Description of magician (looks, demeanour etc. Favorite description: "he looks like a cross between the seductive French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn". Seductive? Perception is indeed an overly complex issue!)
c) Description of magician's typical act
d) Explanation of how it happened
e) The neuroscience of how it happened
It's a good structure but it's spoiled by two things. First, there's at least a few lines on more than 50% of all pages with the repeated point that magic and neuroscience share things, that magic can teach neuroscience, how for centuries artists were ahead of science, scientists learning from painters, breathless in awe descriptions of the magician's talent, how he is an instinctive expert in this or that neuroscience/cognitive phenomenon etc. I'm not exaggerating about the frequency (I don't think so at least, I didn't count), sometimes the point is made subtly, sometimes not. But at the end, at least 5-10% of the book consists of this. The point was clearly made in the intro, I got it.
Secondly, some explanations are somewhat interesting but most are anticlimactic. This is partly the fault of the magic parts (many tricks sound boring when you explain them) but usually it's the neuroscience sections' fault. Most of the explanations seemed to me to rephrase common sense in scientific-sounding terms. I copy-paste a part below which explains how a standard pick pocketing routine is done. It goes on a bit after that, I could rephrase most of the excerpt to 5 words ("the magician distracts your attention") without missing too much.
Should say, 2 stars might be too low, it's an interesting book but that "what the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains" title plus the authors' stated intentions and background makes me rate this as an educational popular science book. As a a light book on magic and psychology, I would have given 3 stars.
Already neuroscientists have learned that attention refers to a number of different cognitive processes. You can pay attention to your TV show voluntarily, which is one process (top-down attention), or your baby's crying can draw your attention away from the TV, which is a different process (bottom-up attention). You can look right at what you are paying attention to (overt attention), or you can look at one thing while secretly paying attention to something else (covert attention). You can draw somebody's gaze to a specific object by looking at it ( joint attention), or you can simply not pay attention to anything in particular. Some of the brain mechanisms controlling these processes are beginning to be understood. For example, you have a "spotlight of attention," meaning that you have a limited capacity for attention. This restricts how much information you can take in from a region of visual space at any given time. When you attend to something, it is as if your mind aims a spotlight onto it. You actively ignore virtually everything else that is happening around your spotlight, giving you a kind of "tunnel vision." Magicians exploit this feature of your brain to maximum effect.
As mentioned, humans have the capacity for overt and covert attention. When a soccer goalie watches a soccer ball fly toward the goal, she is overtly attending to the ball. But that cagey forward on the opposing team, who's trying to make a shot toward the goal, may intentionally divert the goalie's attention from the ball by looking away from the goal (as if to nonverbally communicate, "Hey, look! I'm going to go over there next!" when in fact the next turn will be in the opposite direction). The move is called a "head fake" in sports, and the idea is to trick the goalie into directing attentional resources to the wrong location. The forward, all along, may have looked toward the fictitious region of interest, but was instead covertly attending to the goal so as to plan her shot.