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Seeing is believing? The neuroscience of magic

Posted on 13/01/2012
University of Leicester

What is the difference between a neuroscientist and a magician?

The link between the two might be closer than we think, as academics will show during a presentation at the University of Leicester today (Jan 13).

The Neuroscience of Magic, a minisymposium on how our brains perceive illusions, will showcase the collaboration between neuroscientists Luis Miguel Martínez Otero and Rodrigo Quian Quiroga with professional magician Miguel Ángel Gea.

Mr Gea will perform a series of magic tricks while Mr Martinez will explain the science behind how the magician can influence our minds.

Rodrigo Quian Quiroga and Luis Martinez have been working together with Miguel Gea since 2008 to investigate the neurological processes and brain functions at work during illusions.

Mr Martinez, a visual neuroscience researcher at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche, in Alicante, Spain, said: “Magicians have been studying how people observe things for 4,000 years. They have intuitions and insights into the visual nervous system that go far beyond our laboratory techniques. They can tell where we will see things and where we will miss things.”

As part of the research, audiences were monitored with eye tracking devices to reveal where people's attention was drawn to – and away from – during the magician's routines.

“Our mental resources are very limited,” Mr Martinez explained. “The world is full of information and somehow we have to find information that is helpful for our survival. The process of filtering information means we are blind to a lot of things that happen around us.

“The study of the neuroscience and magic is a field that has developed recently, and right now there more and more publications coming out.

“We are hoping to find new principles of brain function – if so there will be a benefit to science, and a benefit to society.”

University of Leicester neuroscientist and Professor of Bioengineering Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, who organised the event, said: “I am really interested in the link between art and science. My feeling is that we a have a lot to learn from artists, magicians, painters and musicians.

“It is a lot of fun to study the perception of magic but also very useful and very fruitful. I think that featuring this interactions helps to raise awareness and interest about our research in the general public and also helps to enhance visibility of the University of Leicester.”

The event will be held on Friday 13 January at 4pm in Lecture Theatre 2 of the Engineering Building, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester.

Prof Quian Quiroga's collaboration with Argentine artist Mariano Molina is also currently being exhibited as part of ‘The Art of Visual Perception’ at Embrace Arts, Lancaster Road, Leicester until Friday 27 January.

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