Fooling Houdini - by Alex Stone

As a practitioner of magic, you become more attuned to the limits of other people's perceptions as well as your own. As a result, you become better at distinguishing reality from illusion, at reading the angles and decoding the fine print. You gain an intuition for how people behave. You even learn ways to influence their behavior. This makes you less susceptible to all manner of deception. It is this heightened state of awareness, this sixth sense, that has kept me interested in magic well into my supposedly adult life.

Because magic is primarily an oral tradition organized around great masters, new ways of thinking about the craft tend to radiate outward much in the way that languages and cultures do. Descendants of one tradition in turn migrate away from their schools, exporting the school's teachings in the process.

Wes went on to explain that an open show of skill, however brief, is deadly during a magic act, because it gives the audience a reason not to believe. Even if they don't figure out the method, he explained, they'll attribute the effect to manual dexterity and not magic. "You're giving them the secret to everything you do," he said. I had to admit, I'd never thought about magic in this way before. "Magic is not about selling your prowess," he hollered at me, when I pressed him on the issue. "It's about the effect you create--a profound violation of the natural laws of the universe. I don't want them to think I'm skillful. I'm a magician, not a juggler. A juggler is selling skill. I want to get credit for the magic, not the skill."

As with most skills, practice helps. In a recent experiment, neuroscientists at McMaster University set out to determine whether blind people have a keener sense of touch because they can't see or because they rely heavily on their fingers in their daily lives. The scientists concluded that practice alone can supercharge one's sense of touch.

Besides learning Braille--which is extraordinarily difficult to do, especially as an adult--there are a number of more practical ways you can develop your tactile skills. You can practice identifying common objects by feel. You can teach yourself to navigate your home with your eyes closed. Children can be taught to hone their touch through tactile recreation--playing with textured objects, identifying raised letters and numbers by feel, running obstacle courses without looking. (This sort of play is an integral part of the Montessori method.) "Finger sensitivity is much like the sense of hearing," notes vision impairment expert Maureen Duffy. "Over time, you will gain awareness and learn to use your sense of touch to distinguish items and features of items."

I began a daily exercise routine for my hands, called Finger Fitness. I began noticing that I would pick up new moves more quickly, and that manual tasks unrelated to magic--like writing for long hours on the computer or playing stretchy chords on the guitar--became more manageable. I felt more in tune with my hands, more aware of the area surrounding them, what psychologists call the action space. As a result, I became less accident-prone (though I'm still a klutz) and more ambidextrous.

Embodied cognition does away with the Cartesian view of a disembodied consciousness--the brain in a vat, so to speak--in favor of a model wherein abstract thoughts and physical sensations are inextricably linked. Embodied cognition helps explain, for instance, why slouching tends to make you sad, or why people who reflect on their own misdeeds feel physically dirty. In the embodied viewpoint, your body actively shapes your mind-set. High-level concepts are grounded in the flesh. Feedback from our muscles helps us process information and regulate our emotions. Our hands, meanwhile, are intelligent devices, extensions of our consciousness.

Magic has come a long way from rabbits in hats and ladies in halves. Yet most people have no clue how much skill and creativity and hard work goes into it, because magic is all about art concealing art. (As Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld said, "It is a great ability to be able to conceal one's ability.")

Magic is a science of ideas, and some of the most respected magicians never perform. Much like physicists, who generally fall into one of two categories--theorists and experimentalists--magicians are usually either inventors or performers. There are those who do both, but by and large the big names--Angel, Copperfield, Blaine--farm out their R&D.; The inventors never become household names, but they are highly esteemed within the guild.

The main problem with the militant antiexposure stance is that it sells magic short. It portrays magic as a stagnant enterprise with a handful of secrets that might easily be exhausted. In reality, the field of magic is rapidly evolving. Each week, there are new moves, new palms, new sleights. Even people who devote all their time to magic can't keep up. Methods have become so advanced that one needs years of experience and an extensive back catalog of technical know-how just to hang.

"Attention appears to be necessary for all sensory modalities," Mack explained to me in her office. "There is no conscious perception without attention." Even minor distractions can render us deaf and blind, unable to perform simple tasks, regardless of the nature of the distraction. As it turns out, cognitive illusions have staggering real-world consequences. Inattentional blindness, for instance, is why you shouldn't talk on the phone while driving. It's not because your hands are busy, as is commonly thought, but because your mind is busy. The competing cognitive task is what puts you at risk, not the mechanical act of holding the phone to your ear. At highway speeds, a fraction of a second may be all the time you have to avoid a crash, and anything that widens your reaction gap can drastically increase the odds of an accident. Multitasking--not that other m-word your grandmother warned you about--is what makes you go blind. Far from a safety measure, hands-free devices are just as dangerous, if not more so, as regular handheld phones, because they promote a false sense of security while still hogging your attention. Indeed, several experiments have shown that hands-free devices do nothing to reduce the cognitive impairments associated with phone use.

"It is a common mistake to suppose that the quickness of the hand deceives the eyes," observed the superlative English conjuror of the early twentieth century David Devant. "You cannot move your hand so quickly that its passage cannot be followed by anyone who is watching you." The hand, in other words, is decidedly slower than the eye. A better saying would be "the hand is quicker than the mind," because, again, it's the mind, not the eyeball, that's at fault. A failure to notice, not an inability to see, is what characterizes cognitive illusions such as inattentional blindness. Misdirection, not speed, is the key to most magic tricks. Magicians employ misdirection--be it verbal, visual, or tactile--to force us into multitasking mode, thereby inducing a temporary state of impaired awareness.

Consciousness--like the saccadic eye movements that make up much of our vision--might not be a smooth stream so much as a series of discrete images that appear continuous only after our brains fill in the gaps. The same mechanisms that magicians exploit to make a coin vanish and reappear, in other words, may also account for the continuity of our daily experience.


Psychologists have since given a name to the astonishing eagerness with which people will embrace stock personality sketches as unique portraits. They call it the Barnum effect, after P. T. Barnum's famous dictum "We've got something for everyone."

One interesting corollary to Forer's original study is that the more personal information a subject willingly discloses, the higher that participant tends to rate the accuracy of his or her reading. In other words, the perceived accuracy of the astrological reading was a function not of what the astrologer told them, but of what they told the astrologer. Astonishingly, this means psychics can boost their powers just by letting their sitters talk more.

The use of the Barnum effect--along with demographic profiling, fishing for clues, and good old acting--to feign psychic powers is known as cold reading ("cold" in the sense that you don't have any prior information about the subject). Cold reading is what psychics and mediums use to convince people they possess extrasensory insights. A good cold reader can appear to read minds, predict the future, and commune with the dead.

Whereas conventional magic tricks have a tendency to alienate the spectators--you know the secret, and they don't--mentalism engages them on a deeply personal level, creating an illusion of intimacy. The focus is on them and their problems, not on the magician. If magic is about being fooled, mentalism is about being understood.

Mentalists speak a lot about the 15 percent. A magician should pull off every trick perfectly; a mentalist should not. Mentalism should only be about 85 percent accurate. Otherwise it's too good, and it looks like a trick. Mentalists are like jugglers in this regard--they appear more skillful by messing up once or twice.

One of the scariest things about mentalism is that even after you understand how it works, it still feels believable.