Magic Tricks Revealed, By Teller: 7 Ways to Fool the Brain

How do magic tricks work? Teller, of Penn & Teller, pulls back the curtain on human perception.

Magic Tricks Revealed, By Teller: 7 Ways to Fool the Brain
In the past five years, magic—normally deemed 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 is about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest sensory information.

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

Next: The secrets behind great magic tricks

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