Written by Jordi Cami and Luis M. Martinez


Review by Gunnel Minett

Most people enjoy magic, being entertained by a skilled illusionist or magician. But although most people would agree that there is no real ‘magic’ involved, few understand why we perceive such tricks as ‘real’. This is what this books sets out to explain with the help of neuroscience. 

Neuroscience has given us explanations of many of the functions of the brain. We now know for instance, that what the eye registers, is not the same as what the brain tells us that we are seeing: the brain carries out ongoing filtering of the details, eliminating the less important things and interpreting  what we do see. This usually means that the brain picks out key elements in the environment and fills in the ‘blank bits’, constructing what it ‘thinks’ we see based on previous experience. This means that we ‘perceive’ rather than ‘see’. 

The authors of this book identify our tendency to perceive things rather than simply see them, as one of the key ‘tools’ which magicians can use to produce their illusions: by emphasising what they want the audience to ‘perceive’, they can ‘manipulate’ them into ‘seeing’ something that is not really there. In other words, illusionists and magicians can guide the audience into seeing what they are looking at it in a different. 

Consequently (as the authors point out), the audience is not a passive participant in the illusions, but rather a vital component in the procedure. To achieve ‘magical’ effects, the illusionist has to have the right skills to manipulate the audience into seeing what he wants them to see. 

But the book is not just for people who want to know how the magician’s tricks are performed. It also provides a thorough insight into, and understanding of, how the brain works, based on the latest findings in neuroscience.

As the authors summarise their work: “To show that magic tricks are based on common mechanisms already studied in neuroscience has been precisely the purpose of this book. We have presented the cognitive processes behind the effectiveness of the diverse methods and techniques used to achieve the illusion of impossibility. In doing so, we have provided a fresh look that is focused not on the phenomena of magic, …,but on how those techniques and magic effects could be theorised and systematised to be used as experimental tools and guides in cognitive neuroscience.” (p196-97) 

And rest assured, even if the authors explain how the tricks can be performed, no real ‘trade secrets’ are given away. So, reading this book may provide a deeper understanding, but without taking away any of the fun when watching magic tricks in the future.

Published by Princeton University Press, 2022, 226 pp, Hardcover, illustrated, ISBN 978-0691208442