“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Magic” …and Hacking the Brain

Fooling Garwulf 11 Social

After a week off, Penn & Teller: Fool Us returned to our screens last night with a very strong episode. This was one of the harder ones to judge, too – all of the acts were really strong, and picking out the best performance of the night was not easy. So, without further ado, the performers:

Joel Meyers & Spidey: Selecting the best performance of the night ultimately comes down to one key criteria – what performance will people still be talking about the next day, and the day after that? Meyers and Spidey were the first of two strong contenders in this episode. Their act was an escalation from a basic mentalism trick to a much harder one that appeared to randomize everything, throwing in a redemption at the very end. As this went on, Meyers served as a commentator, interrupting and guiding Spidey’s performance. I loved it – the commentary within the routine added an extra dimension that pushed it over the top, and really made it “pop.” They didn’t fool Penn and Teller, yet they did take the best performance of the night…but only by the skin of their teeth.

Rick Lax: This was the second contender for best performance of the night, and it was a routine that had a lot going on inside it. At its heart, this was a feat of magic skill, not unlike watching a strongman lift a heavy weight. Lax performed his card sorting trick while reciting the classic poem “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Thayer. On the surface, the poem was a great way to kill dead time as he sorted the cards, but there was much more to it than that. It is a poem about failure (mighty Casey does not save the day) used as the background for an escalating card trick that is a success. This makes it a lovely juxtaposition of winning and losing and adds that extra dimension that makes the performance more than the sum of its parts. And, to top it off, Lax fooled them… and if he hadn’t been following Meyers and Spidey, he would have taken best performance of the night.

Penn and Teller Fool Us

Marcus Eddie: This is another case where I want to be a lot more positive than I’m going to have to be. Eddie had a very good routine. I liked his message that nothing is impossible, and it was a lovely, high energy performance that harkened back to Houdini’s magic and escapes. However, it could have been great. I think, in the end, it was a problem with pacing – the more time a performer gives to an effect, the more weight it has with the audience. The big finale to Eddie’s trick went by too fast. It needed more of a dramatic pause, and a bit more “oomph” to drive it home to the audience. He may not have fooled Penn and Teller, but he’s already very good, has a tremendous amount of potential to be great, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

(In his commentary, Penn mentioned Robert Harbin, 1908-1978, who was a British magician and author. He also mentioned Bob Sheets, who is a magician and comedian currently active in Washington, DC.)

Bruce Gold: As Penn said, magic and comedy are really hard to balance out and get right, and Gold managed that quite well. His act was funny, and the psychic toaster was nice and playful. If his routine suffered, it was because he is in the shadow of Jon Armstrong’s little plunger from the season premiere, which is a very hard act to follow. Still, it was a good, solid performance, even if it didn’t fool Penn and Teller.

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Penn and Teller: This was a classic routine of theirs, and perhaps one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen of the principles of magic. I’d go as far as to call it an education for anybody who wants to know how magic works. If I have any criticism, it is that it should have been in the season premiere, as it sets the stage for every magic trick that follows. And this wonderful presentation of the inner workings of magic brings me to this week’s commentary.

Most of magic doesn’t happen in the hands of the magician. Instead, it happens in the brain of the audience.

The human brain is a remarkable computer – not only must it operate your automatic and basic motor functions, but it also handles higher reasoning. And, it does all of this on only 20 watts of power (to put that into perspective, a light bulb uses more). When you look around, your eyes – each the equivalent of a 1 megapixel camera – take in a vast amount of data that the brain then has to process. So, how does it process all of this information on only 20 watts?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t. And this is something that magicians rely upon.

It is literally impossible for the human brain to process everything the senses take in. Instead, it takes a number of short cuts, most of which involve cherry-picking the most important elements of what you see, hear, smell and feel, and filling in the rest on the fly. This is how we perceive the world, and what allows us to do things like focus on a single conversation in a crowded room, or pick up on various hazards while driving without being distracted by the texture of the road.

For example, take a look at the photo above. In this picture, I’ve spread out a deck of cards. If I was performing a trick, I would then ask you to pick a colour – red or black. I would then use the magician’s choice technique to justify making half of the red cards disappear from the deck.

In fact, I’m going to do that right now. Go ahead and count the red cards in the picture – there’s only thirteen of them. I’ve made the rest disappear.

Well, that’s the magician in me talking. In actuality, there were never more than thirteen red cards there. I selected the cards carefully – there are hearts and diamonds in the face and common cards, and none of the values are missing. When your brain saw that, because it had no reason to look any further, it just assumed that all of the cards were accounted for, even though there are twice as many black cards as red cards.

Magicians use these assumptions for their tricks all the time. One of the most famous card tricks in magic is called the Ambitious Card, where a card rises again and again to the top of the deck. Most of the time, if you see an action repeated, the cause and effect remain the same – this is something your brain counts on so that it can fill things in. In the Ambitious Card, every single stage tends to use a different method. Because your brain tries to interpret repeated actions as the same cause and effect, this prevents it being able to interpret what is happening correctly. In the case of a slip-up, you might see one of the sleights – but since the next step will use a different one, your brain will discount the evidence it has seen, since it doesn’t fit into the pattern it was trying to create.

Likewise, if I do a rising card trick – as I hold the deck, I tap it three times, and on the third tap a card appears to rise from the middle – the number of taps is very important. What I’m doing is showing you the entirety of my hand twice, so that you’ll see what all of my fingers are doing. The third time, when my hand is obscured by the rising card, your brain will assume that my fingers are doing the same things they were on the previous two taps – and, of course, they aren’t.

Another side-effect of the assumptions that our brains make is called “change blindness.”

Because our brains only take note of important details, and then build our perception of reality around them, the lack of any stimulus to prompt the brain to re-examine what it sees can leave very real changes unnoticed. The reason is simple – having noted a detail such as a deck of cards on the table, without a reason to doubt that it is the same object, the brain just assumes that it will be the same deck of cards the next time it enters your vision. If, while you were looking at something else on the table, somebody was to quietly replace it with a different deck of cards, or add another deck of cards beside it, you would be unlikely to notice the change.

This is an important survival mechanism – our brains cannot operate fast enough for us to function if it has to re-evaluate every single thing it sees every time it sees it. However, for a magician, this is a Godsend. It doesn’t take much misdirection to draw your attention away from a deck of cards long enough to perform a sleight – but since there is nothing to suggest to your brain that it needs to re-evaluate that deck of cards, it will assume that the deck is in the same state it was the last time you saw it.

Much of this is advanced and experimental psychology, and it is only in recent years that psychologists have begun to recognize just how far ahead of the curve magicians have been for so very long. After all, in the end the magician’s best ally is not the sleight or the prop, but the human brain and the many assumptions it makes.

Author’s Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.

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