For the first time, writer and magician Alex Stone has combined his scientific savvy with his love for magic in a book: “Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Power of the Mind.” Using all kinds of research disciplines – psychology, neuroscience, physics, history and even criminology – Stone explores the linkages between science and trickery. An analysis that is guided by lively descriptions of his own efforts to become a master magician and his experiences in the colorful subculture of magic.
What are the most important skills that a magician should master?
“First of all, there are some important physical skills that a magician must possess, such as perfect control of the muscles of the hands. This is difficult, many moves are hard to master, such as some of the sleights used to cheat at cards, or some of the more demanding coin palms. Furthermore, you have to develop an insight and understanding of human attention, perception and decision making, so you know exactly how people will respond to your tricks. For example, you have to understand what kinds of things people notice, when they notice them and how you can control their attention. Or how to manipulate the choices that people make, while at the same time convincing them that they have made a free choice. And then of course you have to know how to perform: acting, learning what to say and how to talk or to be funny. Overall I think that everybody can learn to be a good magician, provided you develop the right skills.”
You followed classes at “schools of magic” in Las Vegas and New York. What did you learn there? Was there also attention for developing a better understanding of human cognition?
“A fair amount of “magic education” is focused on techniques and learning tricks. But yes, there’s also attention to understanding the psychological principles that underlie many tricks. Magic is all about manipulating the brain. Thus research on human cognition, on how the mind perceives the world, can be very useful. It teaches you what the limits of perception are, how the mind can be manipulated. A lot of research even uses magic tricks, as deceiving people can yield very useful information about human nature and the nature of perception.”
Can you give an example of an experiment that includes a magic trick?
“I know one experiment in which researchers used a method to switch photos that was in fact an old sleight-of-hand technique invented by the godfather of modern card magic, Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser. Researchers presented subjects two photos of female faces and asked them which they found more attractive. Then the subjects were given a closer look at their “chosen” face which was actually quickly exchanged for the other less attractive face. Then they were asked to explain their choices. In turned out that the majority of the participants failed to notice they were given the photo they didn’t chose and in addition, they gave a detailed explanations for why they supposedly chose it even though they actually had rejected it. This is an example of something known as choice blindness – the failure to evaluate the outcomes of one’s own decisions. The subjects thought their choices produced a certain outcome, when in fact it produced the opposite outcome. Magicians commonly exploit these types of lapses when manipulating people’s decisions.”
You have a degree in physics. In what way are magic and physics connected?
“Physics has given me a lot of inspiration. In a way, studying physics requires the same sort of mental gymnastics as trickery does. Physics, like magic, is an exercise in imagination. It requires a kind of lateral, out-of-the box thinking that forces you to think outside the confines of your daily experience. In addition, there’s a whole subbranch of magic that’s based on mathematics. There are tricks, for example, that exploit specific types of shuffles that have certain mathematical properties. There are tricks that use special mathematical sequences, as well as coin tricks and number tricks and many other effects that are rooted in math.”
“When it comes to card shuffling, mathematicians have discovered that it takes an average of seven shuffles to randomize a deck of playing cards. In one or two shuffles a deck is usually not perfectly shuffled, and even after five shuffles one can often pick out patches of the original order. This can be exploited to perform some very cool and puzzling tricks. Interestingly, a perfect shuffle – wherein the cards are cut exactly in half and perfectly interleaved – isn’t random at all, and after 8 perfect shuffles a 52-card deck will return to its original order.”
Beside psychology and physics, you also connect crime to trickery and illusion in your book. In what way are crime and magic related?
“Magic is the art of deception. Many tricks used by magicians nowadays were already used in the underworld hundreds of years ago. Deceiving and stealing often rely on the same set of techniques. However magicians use deception to entertain people, while pickpockets and con artists use them for fraud and theft.”
What will fascinate the readers of your book most?
“Most people have no idea that there is an entire world of magic. There are schools, societies, secret meetings, tournaments. There even is a World Championship of Magic, often called the Magic Olympics, that’s organized every three years. About 150 competitors from all over the world show what they’ve got in a number of different categories. A jury judges the performances and prizes are awarded. You can see some of the best magicians in the world at the Magic Olympics. On the whole, the world of magic is a vibrant and innovative subculture, filled with eccentric and often brilliant people that are always inventing new effects. I think most people will be amazed by the creative energy these people possess, and how they keep pushing the envelope to develop new ideas. Magic is like cutting edge science or an avant guard art form.”
Alex Stone has written for Harper’s, Discover, Science, and the Wall Street Journal. He graduated from Harvard University and has a master’s degree in physics from Columbia University. He grew up in Wisconsin, Texas, and Spain. He currently lives in New York City.
Fooling Houdini, by Alex Stone
You can read the full “choice blindness” study described by Alex Stone using the following link:
Johansson, P., Hall, L., & Sikström, S. (2008). From Change Blindness to Choice Blindness. Psychologia DOI: 10.2117/psysoc.2008.142
Find the complete bibliography of the book here.