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LOUPS Pub social, November 2016: "Magic and the science of mind-reading", Graham Edgar

According to the Daily Mail (so it must be true...) there are thirteen pubs in the UK that carry the name of George IV, but only one of them has the honour to play host to both LOUPS pub socials and wandering academics from the nearby London School of Economics. Indeed, while waiting for the LOUPS event to kick off, it is possible to spend a happy hour or two drinking the fine ale (such as Hobgoblin) and playing ‘Spot the academic’ in the bar (2 points for a laptop held together with string, 5 points for any item of corduroy clothing, 10 points for suede elbow patches...).

Perhaps there will be a LOUPS talk on stereotyping... At only £10 a ticket (an absolute bargain!) for a bit of light brain stimulation in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, this was the only place to be on a Wednesday evening in early November. With the traditional warm LOUPS welcome thrown in for free, this was a chance to find out what OUPS has to offer and glean a few more fascinating facts about psychology.

I can’t write this up from anything other than my own perspective as the magician’s assistant (every magician has one!) Thankfully I was not sawn in half that evening and remain intact for the time being. Dr Graham Edgar and I made our way to the pub – this was the fourth time I have assisted with this lecture and I always enjoy it because is a lot of fun for both of us, and for the audience. The atmosphere was relaxed, informal and pleasant – David, Amada and the LOUPS committee made sure the evening was well organised and ran smoothly.

When he isn’t moonlighting as a magician, Graham is a neuroscientist and a cognitive psychologist who is also an OU course-writer. Graham has been tutoring for OUPS for many years – currently on DE200 in May and also the OUPS Postgrad Event in September. His ‘areas’ are perception, attention and situation awareness and particularly trying to understand when things go wrong in these areas. As Graham was quick to point out, magicians have been masterfully exploiting loopholes in our cognitive processes long before psychologists gave them acronyms. Graham also expressed his eternal regret that magicians are superb natural psychologists but, tragically for any kind of career change, the same cannot be said the other way around! As Graham, made his points with various magic tricks throughout the talk, however, I still don’t know how some of them work and I don’t want to - although I have a good idea that it isn’t ‘magic’ as such, but clever use of psychology.

The lecture began with a demonstration of how limited our cognitive resources are, and how much can pass us by even though we may be looking straight at it, leading us to, ‘fill in’ our perception of the world with what is most likely and what we most expect to be there. Graham presented a striking example of this, using a bit of nudity (not us!) that turned out to be all an illusion. If the most likely explanation for what we are seeing is a nude figure, then that is what we see, even if it turns out to be a far less likely (and far less interesting) picture when we look more closely.

Bringing prior knowledge to a situation applies to everything we humans do, since we make cognitive shortcuts and fill in gaps in our knowledge with our best guesses as we try and make sense of the world around us on a daily basis.

It seems that magicians are expert in exploiting our limited resources and fooling our senses by taking us on a magical journey involving magic wands, fairy dust, and pixies, while all the time obscuring the truth of sleight of hand, gimmicks and misdirection. By the time the trick is ‘revealed’ the magician’s story has led you so far from the truth, that the only sensible explanation is that it must be magic. Graham demonstrated that, if we expect a trick, but there isn’t one, we will make up our own. I will say no more about this trick as I’m just getting over the flashbacks, but it involved my hand, a miniature Samurai sword and a mallet!

Magic tricks offer fascinating insights into perception, attention and cognition and the processes that underlay magic tricks can also explain failures of cognition in ‘real life.’ Graham used the example of Looked But Failed to See (LBFS) accidents to illustrate how what you believe to be the, ‘truth’ in the real world may not be. If a particular road is ‘always clear’ every day that you drive down it, then you tend to expect it will be clear today – even if there is a broken- down lorry in the way. There is a divergence between belief and truth in exactly the same way as in a magic trick, but this time driven by your knowledge and expectancies, rather than by the wiles of the magician. This divergence can lead to the kind of accident where a driver will plough into a stationary vehicle (such as a police car with flashing lights, high conspicuity paint, and cones to the rear) and then say (if they’re lucky) that they, ‘didn’t see it.’

Graham then spoke about how magicians mind-read before introducing neuroscience techniques such as fMRI and EEG that arguably do it better, together with some of the more arcane facts about the development of these techniques. Who knew, for example, that the first EEG was recorded by Hans Berger in 1924, as a result of his desire to understand how his sister apparently sensed when he was nearly run down by a horse-drawn canon? Surely a mix of science and magic.

Graham’s own work currently makes use primarily of EEG to investigate the neuroscience underlying such failures of cognition as those demonstrated starkly by LBFS accidents. Currently Graham and his colleagues are in collaboration with various European Fire Service partners. Although it looked from Graham’s slides as though the project mainly involved a pizza tour of Europe, Graham explained that the aim of the project was to understand how the limitations on human cognitive resources (so elegantly exploited by magicians) may influence decision making on the fireground.

LOUPSMagic3The project (titled ‘Firemind’ - http:// erasmusfiremind.wix.com/firemind) looks at how fire-fighters may attempt to build their ‘ situation awareness’ using cognitive resources that simply cannot process every aspect of the situation. Firefighters can (and do) either ‘ tunnel down’ or ‘open out’ in terms of dealing with the available information to make decisions in potentially life threatening situations. Anyone who has studied cognitive psychology will be familiar with the idea that tunnelling down means taking in more detail, but often losing the bigger picture. Conversely, opening out, allows more information to be taken in, but at a shallower level. Finding out how fire-fighters respond when dealing with highly dangerous life threatening situations and making them aware of what they are doing means better training, better situation awareness and, hopefully, better informed decisions potentially saving lives. Surely, research worth doing.

Graham finished by moving back almost to the realms of magic by describing, ‘the way forward,’ that might one day involve ‘reading firefighter’s (and others) minds’ to warn them if their cognitive resources are not being allocated optimally and to give feedback ‘on the job’ to aid in decision making (see illustration).

At the moment, such an approach would require the firefighter to be wired up to many kilos of high tech kit (towing a little trolley into the fire maybe?) and waiting several hours for the feedback – but the technology is advancing all the time.

I am never tired of hearing how psychology can help people – it makes me proud that psychologists attempt to use their skills to make a real difference to peoples’ lives. Graham’s work is a good example of what researchers actually do and why (some of us - me!) research in a voluntary capacity. So, to all new psychologists that came along that evening, I hope you were inspired, if not to pursue a career in psychology, then perhaps a career in magic. If you need an assistant I am always available and Graham is available for children’s parties and weddings for a small fee! Even if you were not inspired to become (or continue to be) a psychologist or a magician, do come along to the next OUPS event for more psychology and good times with lovely people.

And in case you’re wondering, with 584, the most common pub name in the UK is the ‘Red Lion’.

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