Sunday, December 26, 2010

A hectic time of year...

So, now that I have a few days "off" around the holidays, it occurs to me that I have been neglecting the blog, and that maybe I should get to writing.  The good news is, a lot has been going on in the past month or so, and so I have a lot to post about, like the Society for Neuroscience conference, and a couple very interesting lectures I have attended on neuroethics and Alzheimer's disease.  Now that I have a little bit of time, these, and other posts will be forthcoming... in the meanwhile, here is some of the online content for the book I am currently reading: Sleights of Mind: what the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions.  So far, the book is a very good read, with lots of examples of illusions that take advantage of weaknesses in human perception.  For example, if you go to the website, you can see numerous examples of illusions, like the ones in the following video, which take advantage of our limited ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.  If you watch the video below, you will see a magician who is playing a different version of three card monty, or the shell game with you.  He begins by placing a green ball under a clear glass and moving it around with two other glasses that are empty.  Of course, we focus intently on the glass with the ball and track its position as it is moved around because we are expecting, like in a normal version of this game, that he is somehow going to make the ball disappear.  Since we are focusing all of our attention on the one glass, we are not really able to pay attention to the other two, which allows for some slight of hand, and all of the sudden, it appears as if another ball has magically appeared in each of the other two glasses.  Psychologists call this inattentional blindness or, conversely, our attentional spotlight. Outside of the spotlight, we think we are paying attention, but really we are not, and this makes things that are placed in our midst seem to have appeared by magic even though they have not.

A paper in 1999 by Simons and Chabris (pdf) demonstrated this principle quite clearly by presenting the following video to a group of subjects.  They asked the subjects to pay attention and count how many times the ball is passed amongst the team members wearing white jerseys.  Go ahead and try it...

If you watched the video to the end, you may have fallen for the same illusion that most people do when taking this test...  That is, not being able to see someone in a gorilla suit walk directly in front of the camera.  Now, if most people miss that, when it is right in front of them, imagine what a magician can do when they really try to sneak something by you.

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