nestled between rocks the smooth-worn driftwood roots assume the form of a pile of writhing snakes, 'til the mind untangles truth
Tag Archives: Illusion
False Dome [Haiku]
bare rain trees form a dome the eyes see, yet isn't there
BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth
Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.
In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.
However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”
The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.
As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.
BOOK REVIEW: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore
Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Consciousness remains one of the least understood phenomena of our world. It’s also one of the most intriguing subjects, and fascination with it has spurred debate both between science and religion and within science. While science has been moving toward the belief that consciousness is rooted in the brain, there remain many important questions to be answered. Of course, historically, it wasn’t at all common to think of consciousness as arising from the action of a material object (e.g. the human brain), it was beyond humanity’s intellectual capacity to comprehend how something as grand as consciousness could arise from a 1.2kg (<3lb) organ. Consciousness was intertwined with ideas of “the soul”—a non-material self-ness.
So it is that Blackmore takes on a shadowy subject in which questions are as likely to lead to more questions as they are answers. She lays out the arguments between scholars of science and philosophy as to what exactly consciousness is, how it operates, and how important it is or isn’t.
The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter attempts to define consciousness and discusses the degree to which there is a lack of consensus on the subject. In doing so, it outlines why consciousness is such an elusive subject.
Chapter two describes the attempt to find correlates of consciousness in the brain, and it describes some of the case of brain damage that support the notion that consciousness is a product of the brain. Many beliefs of duality (i.e. the idea that body and mind are separate) have been in decline because of cases in which brain damage is specifically linked to changes in consciousness. Consider life-long love being uprooted by a scalpel.
Chapter three deals with a number of topics related to time and space, such as whether consciousness lags behind reality. That sounds ridiculous. However, remember that we experience the world from inside the frame of reference of consciousness.
Chapter four examines a number of illusions to which our conscious minds are systematically subject. We have a number of blind spots, many of which result from the fact that a great deal of what the brain does, it does without letting the conscious mind in on events.
In the fifth chapter, the author presents the link between consciousness and perception of self. It has long been taken for granted by most of the world that there is some soul that exists beyond the body, and it’s in this chapter that the author reflects upon whether this is an illusion or not.
Chapter six covers a topic that is integrally linked to consciousness and the idea of self, and that is free will. Free will is another notion that humanity historically took for granted that is coming under fire in the face of our increasing understanding of the brain. Current scientific evidence suggests that free will as we perceive it (i.e. thinking things through consciously and then making a decision at a conscious level) is an illusion.
Chapter seven is about the many altered states of consciousness, including: dreaming, drug-induced effects, meditation, and some of the widely reported experiences that seem to involve separation of consciousness from body (e.g. out-of-body and near-death experiences.)
Chapter eight ponders the evolutionary advantage offered by consciousness (especially if a major part of what we think we use our conscious minds for is an illusion.) One thing is clear; evolution doesn’t hand out vast and complex advances in capability if they don’t serve to make one more likely to survive to procreate. However, could consciousness—majestic as it may seem—be a mere side-effect of a big brain developed to facilitate survival in a world in which we weren’t the strongest, fastest, or most athletic creatures by a long shot?
The book uses a wide variety of black-and-white graphics including cartoons, technical diagrams, and photographs. These graphics help to communicate important ideas and are more likely to do so with levity than technical complexity. The book is readable, considering the challenging topic.
I’d recommend this book for those interested in an overview of the state of understanding and debate about what consciousness is.
Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them
There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”
(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)
To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?
I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.
This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious. But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life. For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.
Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers. The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.
As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.
BOOK REVIEW: Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde
Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen L. Macknik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sleights of Mind explains magic tricks by telling one about the shortcuts, limits, and programming of brain (and attendant sensory systems) that facilitate such tricks. The reader needn’t be concerned that the book will spoil all the illusionists’ secrets for one. The authors carefully demarcate the beginnings and endings of spoiler sections that explicitly explain tricks. This allows a reader to skip over such sections if one doesn’t want to know the trick. I suspect few readers do skip the spoiler sections because that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the neuroscientific concepts being discussed. The spoiler sections are an attempt to comply with the magician’s code (the neuroscientist authors became magicians themselves) and to maintain a good relationships with the many magicians (some, like Teller or the Amaz!ng Randi, quite famous) who cooperated in the writing of the book.
Over 12 chapters, the authors explain the neuroscience of how various classes of illusion work. Most of the chapters address a specific class or subclass of illusion. The first few chapters deal with visual illusions. We look at the world in what seems like crystal clarity (at least with glasses on or contacts in), but there are many limitations and gaps in our visual processing system. While it seems like we are directly seeing the world around us, in point of fact, our visual experience is a product of the brain reconstructing information that the eyes take in—and it doesn’t do it as perfectly as our brain tricks us into believing. As the authors state it, “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise.” Chapter 3, deals with illusion in art, which is little outside the theme of the book, but it offers an opportunity to explain some intriguing facts about how the brain and eyes work in concert.
The next couple chapters (Ch. 4 and 5) deal with cognitive illusions. Just like our visual system, our conscious minds save energy by engaging in short-cuts that disguise the mind’s limits while offering the possibility of manipulation. The brain also works hard to reconcile what appear to be inconsistencies, and often this reconciliation leads us astray. Misdirection is discussed in detail. Our minds are primed to let certain actions and sensory inputs draw its attention, and humans are awful at paying attention to more than one input stream at a time. Teller explains that, “Action is motion with a purpose.” So, if one can give one’s movement a purpose (even scratching one’s chin) it will be ignored while movements seemingly without purpose are anomalous and draw attention. The authors introduce the reader to mirror neurons—the part of our brains that take observations of another’s actions and makes forecasts about that person’s intent. This system is highly hackable by magicians.
Chapter 5 informs us that we aren’t as good at multitasking as we think—which is to say we completely stink at it but tend to think we are awesome multi-taskers. The gorilla experiment is offered as a prime example of this situation. In the gorilla experiment, about half-a-dozen people, moving around randomly, pass a ball / balls among themselves. The subject is asked to count the number of passes. In the middle of this activity a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the rapidly moving passers. When asked whether they saw the gorilla, most people say they didn’t (and those who do see the gorilla invariably offer a count of passes that is vastly off the mark.) [If this is either unclear or unbelievable, you can YouTube it.]
Chapter 6 examines multi-sensory illusions. The quintessential example is how our brains lead us believe that the sound of a ventriloquist’s voice is coming from the moving lips of a dummy. (Also, it seems like voices are coming from the lips of actors on-screen in the movies, even though the speakers are probably off to the side in the walls or ceiling.) Synesthesia (cross-wiring between senses and brain such that some people may always see the number 5 in red or hear a C-sharp in green) is introduced to the reader.
Chapter 7 explores the illusions of memory. Just as with our vision and attention, our memories aren’t as indelible as they seem to be. We think we’re calling up a transcription of the events of our lives, but really we’re remembering the last remembrance of said event. This can lead to a migration / distortion of events in the same manner as the kid’s experiment whereby one whispers a phrase into the ear of the kid in the next chair and it traverses the classroom. The original sentence “The cat is on the windowsill” invariably becomes something like “Lenny Kravitz steals puppies from the till.” (Have you ever experienced a situation in which a person remembers the details of an event substantially differently from yourself even if the broad brushstrokes are the same?) Some entertainers use pneumonic tricks to convince audiences that they have supernatural mental abilities when—in fact—they have merely turned understanding of memory to their advantage.
Chapter 8 considers how in-built expectations and assumptions are exploited by magicians and mentalists. Again, these methods work because our brains employ all sorts of energy-saving shortcuts. For example, our brains often do the same thing as Google’s search engine—filling in the blanks by taking advantage of one’s experience to avoid the need for costly cognitive processing.
Chapter 9 explains that our “free choices” are often not so “free” as we think. One of the most disconcerting, yet intriguing, facts to come from the onslaught of brain imaging studies since the 1990’s is that our decisions are made on a subconscious level before our conscious minds are even aware the decision has been made. Prior to this, we’d always been under the misapprehension that we are consciously making all these decisions–big and small–because the conscious mind is just a big credit stealer (to be fair, the conscious mind doesn’t recognize that it’s so out of the loop in decision-making.) So many of our decisions are made in predictable ways by emotional / automated responses, and mentalists use that fact to their advantage.
Chapter 10 is a catchall for topics that didn’t fit into earlier chapters, including hypnosis, superstitions, and the gambler’s fallacy (i.e. the idea that a roulette number that hasn’t come up in a while [or slot machine that hasn’t paid off recently] is bound to pay soon—regardless of the probability distribution that actually rules the outcome.)
The remainder of the book tells the story of the author’s try-out for a magic society and discusses the question of whether knowing the neurological and psychological roots of magic tricks will kill magic as a source of entertainment. I found the latter to be the more interesting discussion. The authors are optimistic about magic’s survival, and offer good reasons. After all, almost nobody believes that magicians are conducting supernatural activities [not even people who take some wildly unsubstantiated beliefs as givens.] Even knowing how the tricks work doesn’t create the ability to see through the tricks because so many of the factors that magicians exploit operate on a subconsciously programmed level, and such proclivities would have to be trained away. People who want to enjoy the spectacle of magic aren’t likely to go to the trouble of training themselves in that way.
I enjoyed this book even though I’m not particularly a fan of magic—though I did find myself watching quite a few YouTube clips of the magicians mentioned in the book. If you’re interested in how one’s mind and sensory systems work, and the limitations of those systems, you’ll find this book worthwhile. If you’re into magic, you’ll like it all the more so.