Expanding the Frontiers of Neuroscience

NeuroMagic: The New Wave in Brain Function Studies

Fact: our eyes see only a fraction of the world around us, while our brains fill in the rest.

Husband-and-wife research team Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

At SUNY Downstate Medical Center, husband-and-wife research team Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik are investigating the neural mechanisms behind the way our brains construct a picture of reality, and they're using a surprising method for doing so: magic. Their research has important implications for understanding a wide range of neurological and cognitive disorders.

Martinez-Conde specializes in the study of fixational eye movements-constant jerking and tracking motions our eyes make without our being aware of it. Her work with Parkinsonian patients was recently honored with the prestigious Eye Track Award. Among other projects, Macknik is exploring attention, perception and blood flow in mental disease.

Recognizing that magicians' insights into human behavior provide rich material for neuroscience research, the researchers founded a new field of study-NeuroMagic. As the magicians and neuroscientists got to know each other, Martinez-Conde and Macknik found that the tricksters' ideas suggested a new approach. "We were able to cut years off of cognitive research because the mag1c1ans had already worked out the phenomenology of how the trick was working," explains Macknik.

We were able to cut years off of cognitive research because the magicians had already worked out the phenomenology of how the trick was working.

-Stephen Macknik, Professor of Ophthalmology, Neurology. and Physiology & Pharmacology, SUNY Downstate

For example, Apollo Robbins, "The Gentleman Thief"-a Las Vegas performer and a leading expert on deception-had observed that curvilinear hand motions deceived the audience differently than straight hand motions did. Says Macknik, "Apollo Robbins was exactly correct: when he moves his hands in a certain way, you get different kinds of eye movements, and this leads to the way we allocate our attention in different ways. Before we did this project, it was fundamentally not known that these eye movements worked in this way."

Their finding opens the way for further research in the link between eye movement and attention.

Martinez-Conde is working with patients with Alzheimer's, while Macknik is using eye tracking and change detection measures to better understand autism. "The neural domain in the brain that controls attention is linked to vision, emotions, autism, and mood disorders," he says. "By studying the fundamental mechanism that underlies attention, we're studying how all of those various domains in the brain interact with each other."

Macknik and Martinez-Conde might call what they do neuroscience, but to the thousands who will benefit from their research, it's magic.

Empire Innovation Program