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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.
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on 27 March 2011
Being an amateur magician myself along with having an interest in psychology, this book was a must-buy. I had initial reservations as to whether the book may be too complex or too simple both in terms of magic and psychology, but Macknik and Martinez-Conde really strike a nice balance. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of magic trick or effect and aims to give a clear and concise explanation as to what physical reaction this has on our brains and the way we perceive reality.
There are a number of reasons why this book is successful. Firstly, the authors' style is informal and likeable and the aim is always to inform rather than confuse with any unnecessary technical information. Secondly, it is clear that through the writing of the book the authors have really developed a deep respect and love of magic (they hadn't seen a magic show beforehand) which allows the book to flow as the links between magic and neuroscience become clear and meaningful. Finally, every time a new magic trick is referenced there is a well-written description of the effect along with a 'spoiler alert' which gives an explanation of the secrets behind the method. Also many of the tricks are available to watch on the authors' website which really helps you understand what the effects look like if you don't have any magic experience.
Overall I would really recommend this book for magicians and those interested in psychology or neuroscience, or if like me you enjoy both, then you should buy it immediately.
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on 18 April 2011
From a magicians point of view I really enjoyed this book.
The 'magic revealed' sections are interesting if you are not a magician but nothing to get too excited about if you perform magic - they certainly dont tell you all the slights and moves like a magic scipt of instructional book.
The extracts from key magicians and scientists were very insightful and interesting - also very useful ideas which I have encorperated into my performances.
This book talks about framing, misdirection, timing and use of language - all of which I think we as magicians use but may not necessarily know why and how to improve upon them.

Not the easiest of reads as its written from a scientist tone in the main part but well worth it.
Ian Brennan
(Prefessional Magician in the West Midlands)
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on 11 February 2011
I have always loved those shows which tell you how tricks are done, now I have found out how my brain helps magicians to fool me. Like Oliver Sacks or VS Ramachandran the authors are make neuroscience seem simple, and yet fascinating. Lots of tricks are revealed - but they give you fair warning in case you don't want to be disillusioned. Actually I was perhaps even more impressed by magicians after I read the book, because they have to work so hard to learn to make it all seem so easy.
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on 18 July 2011
In general this is a good read. I quite enjoyed it, although it did not reveal anything startlingly new. It is popular science, so don't expect anything too in-depth.

There is a good list of references in the back though, so you can follow stuff up in more detail if you want.
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on 4 August 2013
Right in the middle of my second reading of this book (the first being a few years ago) and I'm rediscovering how great a job the authors do in linking the neuroscience to the way magicians "hack" our brains.

The authors exhibit the kind of sense of wonder that is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. They do a good job of outlining how some magic tricks work and in doing so they show how easily our brains are deceived.

The authors are fuelled by by the amazement that they are just learning what magicians intuitively arrived at more than a 100 years previous. This amazement translates quite nicely and makes the book an enjoyable read for those fascinated by magic, the mind and how modern neuroscience is informing the discussion.
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on 13 December 2015
This is not a magic how-to guide, but a great primer for understand of how and why certain sleights/illusions work. If you're interested in just learning the mechanics of a trick then this book is a must buy.
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on 8 January 2014
This book really appealed to the scientist in me, it was very readable and well written. I enjoyed the fact that the authors explained the science but then showed how magicians exploited this to make the trick work. It did reveal how quite a few classic illusions are performed but the authors did alert you to that fact that they were going to tell you this so you could miss a bit out if you didn't want to know, however this seemed a bit pointless as if you don't want to know, why would you read the book? This was my only criticism about what is otherwise a very insightful and fascinating read.
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on 13 April 2015
This book is interesting and will be to both magicians and people interested in the why of things. I can't say I learn much new magic from it but I certainly did learn some very interesting facts that will allow me to manufacture my own tricks to entertain the masses. Or the few as the case may be.
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on 4 July 2014
A great book! Thoroughly enjoyed reading and picking up tricks used. Was disappointed when I came to the end - would like to have carried on reading more on the subject. Maybe more on the subject of hypnotism would have been interesting. Recommended to anyone with an interest in magic, deception or the mind!
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