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Your Brain: The Invisible Magician

“Abracadabra!” With a flourish of their wand, the magician ensnared our minds and tricked our senses… A much loved trope of fiction, and of real life entertainment. However, humans intrinsically possess a magical power of their own – and we don’t even need a wand.

Our brain is an invisible magician. It can often trick us into seeing, feeling, and experiencing certain events that are not real. Underlying the seemingly magical nature of these phenomena are scientific explanations. Let us delve into some of the magic tricks our brains have up their sleeves.

Visual Optical Illusions

A famous adage often uttered is “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”. I would also argue that the eyes are filters for the brain. Every day, our brain constructs what we perceive as reality. For example, humans have a natural visual blind spot in both eyes, but the brain, using signals from the eye, fills in what is missing from the field of view.

By Richard Hendrick Flickr.com
Photo: Richard Hendrick @ Flickr

In 2019, neuroscientist Dr. Patrick Cavanagh researched visual illusions and how the brain processes illusory motion. This thus extends to human perceptions of reality.

Cavanagh and his team found that the visual cortex of the brain is not so easily tricked by illusion. Instead, it is the frontal lobes of the brain, associated with higher thinking and decision making, that are being fooled. These frontal parts of the brain are where the “story of reality” is constructed.

Different life experiences influence how the brain perceives the reality presented to us. From visual motion to colours, the brain will create a story based on different filters put in place by our well-meaning eyes.

A viral example of this was the 2015 controversy “the dress”. Some people saw the dress to be black and blue while others testified it was white and gold. As it turns out, both groups were visually filtering out different wavelengths of light to create conflicting perceptions of the dress.

The Phantom Limb

Many amputee patients have described the feeling of a phantom limb, a vivid experience of sensations in a missing part of the body. This confusing phenomenon was studied by scientists who found that the brain alters its communication functions for motion and sensation after amputation.

The plasticity of the brain offers insight into how treatments and therapies can be developed to address phantom limb pain. Researchers from Oxford and UCL used this scientific understanding to develop a new treatment to reduce pain from phantom limb sensations.

By using small electrical currents to stimulate regions of the brain associated with the amputated limb, and direct activity through the altered brain functions, the researchers were able to provide significant phantom limb pain relief that is affordable, safe, and uncomplicated.

De Ja Vu and False Memories

The uncanny feeling of experiencing something before – even though you have not – is termed ‘de ja vu’. This comes from the French for “already seen”.

According to a study published in 2012, the memory phenomenon is built on the principle of familiarity. When our brain is triggered by an experience that presents similarities to a previous memory, that misplaced familiarity can result in feelings of de ja vu.

The parts of the brain activated by these feelings were those involved in higher order thinking and critical decision-making abilities. University of St. Andrews researcher Akira O’Connor and his team were able to trigger ‘de ja vu’ in the lab and scan the brains of volunteers using MRI. O’Connor suggests that the brain is being alerted of a “memory error” and the sensation of de ja vu is the brain attempting conflict resolution between perceived and real experience.

A related, but different, phenomenon is that of false memories. As discussed previously, the brain creates stories that portray our perceptions of reality. This trick also extends to our memories.

Multiple experiments have found that people can be tricked, for example, into believing they had been lost in a mall or had taken a hot air balloon ride. Being presented with doctored photographic evidence convinced them they’d experienced things they’d never experienced.

False memories and misremembering can have grave implications on the justice system, as particular phrasing of questions or feedback can influence witness testimonies, or even suspect confessions.

It is therefore vital to understand the science underlying what seems to be unexplainable – this resident invisible magician permanently occupying your headspace. From illusions and phantoms to familiarity and falsehoods, could science simply be magic made real?

Tags: Brain, de ja vu, illusion, magic, memory, neurobiology, psychology, tricks

Chloe Tenn

Postgraduate studying MSc Science Communication at the University of Manchester
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