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Engineer using magic tricks to study the brain

March 12, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Leicester
and World Science staff

An en­gi­neer is us­ing his ex­pert­ise with mag­ic tricks to re­search the brain’s pow­ers of per­cep­tion and mem­o­ry.

Hu­go Caf­faratti, en­gi­neer and semi-professional mag­ician from Bar­ce­lona, Spain, has em­barked on a doc­tor­ate com­bin­ing long­stand­ing in­ter­ests in the brain and mag­ic to pi­o­neer what he calls as a new field of brain re­search: neuro-mag­ic. He plans to in­ves­t­i­gate how our brains per­ceive what ac­tu­ally hap­pens be­fore our eyes, and how our at­ten­tion can be drawn away from im­por­tant de­tails.

PhD stu­dent and semi-professional ma­gi­cian Hu­go Caf­faratti (left) with Prof. Quian Quiroga (right). (Cour­te­sy U. of Leices­ter)


“Ma­gi­cians have been an­swer­ing si­m­i­lar ques­tions that we have in the lab,” said neu­ro­sci­ent­ist Ro­drigo Quian Quiroga, who will over­see Caf­faratti’s work at the Uni­vers­ity of Leices­ter, U.K., and who di­rects the Cen­tre for Sys­tems Neu­ro­sci­ence there. 

Ma­gi­cians “have an in­tu­i­tive knowl­edge of how the mind works,” he added. “Hu­go will likely br­ing a fresh new view on how to ad­dress ques­tions we deal with in neu­ro­sci­ence.” 

Caf­faratti al­so plans to study “forced choice”—a mag­i­cians’ tech­nique of fooling us in­to think­ing we’ve made a free choice. Among oth­er things, he plans to ask par­ti­ci­pants to watch videos of card trick per­for­mances, while sit­ting in front of an eye-tracker de­vice. This would al­low him to mon­i­tor where our at­ten­tion is fo­cused dur­ing il­lu­sion­s—and how our brain can be de­ceived when our eyes miss the whole pic­ture.

“Many times a day we make a de­ci­sion and feel free. We do not real­ize that we have been forced,” he ex­plained. “I am con­struct­ing an ex­pe­ri­ment to study what hap­pens when we make forced de­ci­sions – to try and find the rea­sons for it. I am think­ing about which kinds of tricks I know could be use­ful to give more in­sights about brain func­tion.”

Caf­faratti has 12 years of ex­perience work­ing with mag­ic, spe­cial­iz­ing in card tricks, and is a mem­ber of the Span­ish So­ci­e­ty of Il­lu­sion­ism. He al­so has a long­stand­ing in­ter­est in neu­ro­sci­ence and bioen­gi­neering, hav­ing tak­en a Mas­ter’s de­gree in Bi­o­med­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing at Uni­vers­ity of Bar­ce­lona.

Quiroga’s lab at Leices­ter has a his­to­ry of over­seeing un­usu­al pro­jects. “I am very in­ter­ested in con­nec­tions be­tween sci­ence and the arts,” he said. Last year, “we or­gan­ized an art and sci­ence ex­hi­bi­tion as a re­sult of a one-year rota­t­ion in my lab of vis­u­al art­ist Ma­ria­no Mo­li­na. Hu­go’s PhD will look at de­ci­sion-making and at­ten­tion—and al­though he is do­ing his first steps in neu­ro­sci­ence, I think he al­ready has a lot of ex­pert­ise in this area.”


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An engineer is using his expertise with magic tricks to research the brain’s powers of perception and memory. Hugo Caffaratti, engineer and semi-professional magician from Barcelona, Spain, has embarked on a doctorate combining longstanding interests in the brain and magic to pioneer what he calls as a new field of brain research: neuro-magic. He plans to investigate how our brains perceive what actually happens before our eyes, and how our attention can be drawn away from important details. “Magicians have been answering similar questions that we have in the lab,” said neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, who will oversee Caffaratti’s work at the University of Leicester, U.K., and who directs the Centre for Systems Neuroscience there. Magicians “have an intuitive knowledge of how the mind works,” he added. “Hugo will likely bring a fresh new view on how to address questions we deal with in neuroscience.” Caffaratti also plans to study “forced choice”—a tool often magicians often use in which they fool us into thinking we’ve made a free choice. Among other things, he plans to ask participants to watch videos of card trick performances, while sitting in front of an eye-tracker device. This would allow him to monitor where our attention is focused during illusions—and how our brain can be deceived when our eyes miss the whole picture. “Many times a day we make a decision and feel free. We do not realize that we have been forced,” he explained. “I am constructing an experiment to study what happens when we make forced decisions – to try and find the reasons for it. I am thinking about which kinds of tricks I know could be useful to give more insights about brain function.” Caffaratti has 12 years of experience working with magic, specializing in card tricks, and is a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism. He also has a longstanding interest in neuroscience and bioengineering, having taken a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at University of Barcelona. Quian Quiroga’s lab at Leicester has a history of overseeing unusual projects. “I am very interested in connections between science and the arts,” he said. Last year, “we organized an art and science exhibition as a result of a one-year rotation in my lab of visual artist Mariano Molina. Hugo’s PhD will look at decision-making and attention—and although he is doing his first steps in neuroscience, I think he already has a lot of expertise in this area.”