The Magic Squirrel

The central secret of conjuring is a manipulation of interest. – Henry Hay

I’m reading the neuroscientist Michael Graziano. He tells this story of a patient of a psychiatrist friend of his…

This patient was delusional: he thought that he had a squirrel in his head. Odd delusions of this nature do occur, and this patient was adamant about the squirrel. When told that a cranial rodent was illogical and incompatible with physics, he agreed, but then went on to note that logic and physics cannot account for everything in the universe. When asked whether he could feel the squirrel — that is to say, whether he suffered from a sensory hallucination — he denied any particular feeling about it. He simply knew that he had a squirrel in his head.

In this article, Graziano compares the way the patient experiences the squirrel to the way we all experience consciousness. We simply know it is there and expect to find one day because we experience it as though it is a real object. But Graziano argues that consciousness is not a thing, like a squirrel, but rather an informational description. Just as the information about a squirrel has become mistaken for a real squirrel in the head of the patient so we mistake information about our attention for a magical, non-physical object that we then experience as consciousness.

Graziano’s Attention Schema Theory has a very simple idea at its heart: that consciousness is a schematic model of one’s state of attention. Graziano says that consciousness is an informational description of non-physical magic.

As a magician with a background is the biological sciences this theory makes a great deal of sense to me. I know from experience that consciousness can be altered by manipulating someone’s physical attention.

In this article, Graziano describes the evolution of the mechanisms of the brain that deal with different kinds of attention.

The tectum is a part of the brain that controls overt attention – “aiming the satellite dishes of the eyes, ears, and nose toward anything important”. Magicians have many strategies for controlling the tectum. This kind of overt physical deception is central to my work with sport coaches and we have identified several dozen unique strategies for tectum fooling.

Graziano then describes the evolution of the cerebral cortex.

The cortex ups the ante with something called covert attention. You don’t need to look directly at something to covertly attend to it. Even if you’ve turned your back on an object, your cortex can still focus its processing resources on it.

Again, magicians have developed many strategies for controlling covert attention. You might even say that the ability to artfully manipulate covert attention is one of the talents that distinguishes great magicians.

What fascinates me is about Attention Schema Theory is that consciousness is a schematic model of one’s state of attention that we experience as non-physical magic. If the central secret of conjuring is a manipulation of attention then conjuring is literally the manipulation of this magical thinking.

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