Teller Reveals His Secrets: The smaller, quieter half of the magician duo Penn & Teller writes about how magicians manipulate the human mind

March 2, 2012

The Smithsonian:

In the last half decade, magic—normally deemed entertainment fit only for children and tourists in Las Vegas—has become shockingly respectable in the scientific world. Even I—not exactly renowned as a public speaker—have been invited to address conferences on neuroscience and perception. I asked a scientist friend (whose identity I must protect) why the sudden interest. He replied that those who fund science research find magicians “sexier than lab rats.”

I’m all for helping science. But after I share what I know, my neuroscientist friends thank me by showing me eye-tracking and MRI equipment, and promising that someday such machinery will help make me a better magician.

I have my doubts. Neuroscientists are novices at deception. Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.

I remember an experiment I did at the age of 11. My test subjects were Cub Scouts. My hypothesis (that nobody would see me sneak a fishbowl under a shawl) proved false and the Scouts pelted me with hard candy. If I could have avoided those welts by visiting an MRI lab, I surely would have.

But magic’s not easy to pick apart with machines, because it’s not really about the mechanics of your senses. Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information.

I think you’ll see what I mean if I teach you a few principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions.

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.

5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method—the thing that fools your eye—is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread. The hoop is what magicians call misdirection, a second trick that “proves” the first. The hoop is genuine, but the deceptive choreography I use took 18 months to develop (see No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).

6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. David P. Abbott was an Omaha magician who invented the basis of my ball trick back in 1907. He used to make a golden ball float around his parlor. After the show, Abbott would absent-mindedly leave the ball on a bookshelf while he went to the kitchen for refreshments. Guests would sneak over, heft the ball and find it was much heavier than a thread could support. So they were mystified. But the ball the audience had seen floating weighed only five ounces. The one on the bookshelf was a heavy duplicate, left out to entice the curious. When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.

7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets. I’ll explain it by incorporating it (and the other six secrets you’ve just learned) into a card trick worthy of the most annoying uncle…

Read it all.

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One Response to “Teller Reveals His Secrets: The smaller, quieter half of the magician duo Penn & Teller writes about how magicians manipulate the human mind”

  1. Booger Says:

    Penn and Teller’s methods are also great fodder for those who lead nations. Think about it…


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