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Neuroscience Is the Key to a Good Magic Trick

One of Harry Houdini’s better-known quotations is: “My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”

The famed magician, and all magicians for that matter, know more than most about how the brain works—even if not on strictly scientific terms. For that, we have neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of a book on “neuromagic” called Sleights of Mind. They’re interested in the ways magicians manipulate the minds of an audience in order to successfully maneuver tricks.

In the video from Scientific American above, you can hear Macknik and Martinez-Conde discuss their findings—and get totally mesmerized by a classic cup and balls trick performed by magician Joshua Jay. Most table (or “close up”) magic tricks are about misdirection, when the performer does multiple things at once in order to divert the audience’s attention in a purposeful way. Our brains can really only follow one thing at a time (as Macknik says, “there is no such thing as multitasking with attention”) so it can be easy for a magician to get the audience to focus on something unimportant so they block out the sleight of hand happening nearby.

The most amazing—or most frustrating—thing about this neuro-tendency is that it’s sort of impossible to defy. Even when we know how magic works, it doesn’t change the way the brain functions. The magician can still stay ahead of the audience, and manage to trick magic-hunting eyes and minds. Not believing doesn’t change what you’re seeing. 

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Medicine
The World's First VR Brain Surgery Is Here
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A lot of consumers are focused on virtual reality as a means of immersing themselves in games or traveling to exotic locales, but the technology holds some incredible potential as a learning tool. One recent—and graphic—example is VR brain surgery, which allows viewers to examine the amygdala like they never thought possible.

In the experience, which was produced and overseen by Fundamental VR at the Royal London Hospital, users will be able to follow along with surgeons as a patient is wheeled into the operating room and undergoes a real neurosurgical procedure to repair two aneurysms (balloon-like bulges in an artery that can rupture). Cameras installed in the OR and GoPro units on the surgeons provide a first person-perspective; you can also switch to the POV of the patient as instruments enter and exit your field of view.

The idea was embraced by surgeons at Royal London, who see it as having the potential to be a valuable training tool for neurosurgeons by mimicking "hands on" experience. Although the footage is best seen using a VR headset, you can get a feel for the experience in the YouTube footage below. Did we mention it's very, very graphic?

More sophisticated versions of the program—including tactile feedback for users—are expected to be implemented in Fundamental VR's surgical training programs in the future. Currently, programs like Surgical Navigation Advanced Platform (SNAP) are being used at major institutions like Stanford University and University of California, Los Angeles to map the brain prior to incision.

If this whets your appetite for witnessing brain operation footage, don't forget we filmed and broadcast a live brain surgery in partnership with National Geographic. You can still check it out here.

[h/t Wired]

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Health
How Dangerous Is a Concussion?
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It's not football season, but the game is still making headlines: In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, neuropathologist Ann McKee and her colleagues examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players and found 110 of them to have the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The condition has been linked to repeated blows to the head—and every year in the U.S., professional and novice athletes alike receive between 2.5 and 4 million concussions. This raises the question: What happens to the human brain when we get a concussion or suffer a hard blow to the head, and how dangerous are these hits to our long-term health?

Expert Clifford Robbins explains in the TED-Ed video below:

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