Cerebrum Article

Magic of the Mind

Published: October 15, 2021
Author: Daniel Roy

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

As a magician, it’s unconventional to openly demonstrate the principles of sleight of hand before hundreds of neuropsychiatrists. Yet I found myself doing just that at the virtual American Neuropsychiatric Association conference in March of 2021. While simultaneously studying neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania and performing sleight of hand magic shows at venues in the Philadelphia area, I was recruited by two researchers to collaborate on their talk: “The Neuropsychiatry of Magic.” In my portion, I explained how magicians take advantage of limitations in our perceptual systems, the narrowness of our attention, and the ease with which our memories can be manipulated.

While preparing for this talk—two years in the making due to the pandemic—I started creating videos about magic, sleight of hand, and neuroscience on YouTube. One of my videos, below, in which I demonstrate ten levels of sleight of hand, has garnered more than two million views and has allowed me to amass a following of over 80,000 subscribers. (A more recent video is adapted from my portion of the talk.) With the exposure I’ve gained from social media, I’ve managed to stay busy teaching magic to students of all levels and performing for companies like Google, Microsoft, Warner Music, and more.

A Spark is Lit

My path to performing magic professionally began in San Francisco where, as a ten-year-old, I was bored out of my mind while volunteering at a school fundraiser. Thankfully, one of the event’s workers—mid-50s, pot belly, salt and pepper handlebar mustache—was a magician.

He had me put my initials on a card of my choice (the five of diamonds) and inserted it into the middle of the deck. Miraculously, it repeatedly rose to the top of the deck with no discernible manipulation. Before this life-altering moment, I had only ever seen magic done on stage from a distance. Watching magic close-up was unimaginably different. With the deck of cards literally inches from my face, there were no barriers, physical, conceptual, or otherwise, between me and the magic. It was a truly visceral, adrenaline-pumping experience—the start of what has become a lifelong obsession.

Soon, I was venturing every weekend to Misdirections Magic Shop, one of the last great brick-and-mortar magic stores in this new age of online magic. The front door’s threshold felt like a portal to another world. Jokes and pranks on the left, backlit glass display cases on the right, filled with all sorts of magic props: cards, coins, boxes, wands, and more. And behind those cases, which made up the store’s counter, stood Joe Pon, who I was lucky enough to meet the first time I walked into the shop.
Why so lucky? Joe isn’t your typical magic store owner. Rather than go for the easy sale of an expensive prop, he measures a customer’s experience level and steers them to a useful how-to book or video. Furthermore, he has a vast, jack-of-all-trades knowledge of magic. If you have a question, Joe knows the answer, and the few times he doesn’t, he knows exactly where to find it.

With magic books and videos, instruction can often feel impersonal. Joe had a strict policy: If you bought it from him, he would provide lifetime support, taking you to the back end of the shop where you huddled over the countertop so he could quietly teach you the ins and outs of the trick, the variations, and the performance theory. It was a special, intellectually intimate moment of connection between you and a vast body of seemingly arcane knowledge, all through the conduit of a man in shorts and a black polo shirt imprinted with the words “Misdirections Magic.”

I went there every single weekend—sometimes Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—lingering until an alarm clock with the sound of a barking dog signaled that it was time for Joe to close.

While most first-time buyers desired the instant gratification of a “special” deck that does the trick for you, I wanted to learn real sleight of hand that could be done with any deck of cards. The first book Joe sold me was Card College Volume 1 by the Swiss magician Roberto Giobbi, the first installment in a five-volume, 1,500-page encyclopedic course on sleight of hand with cards.

The book was both inspiring and frustrating. Nuanced, technical descriptions accompanied by illustrations of the necessary finger movements allowed for precise communication, but not at a fourth grade reading level. I would often entice a parent to help me make sense of whatever the heck “this combination of actions results in a diagonal motion that forms a break between the packet and the rest of the deck” meant.

But it was bliss. At a time in middle school when many students experience social growing pains, myself included, both Card College and the magic store were an escape. I would often practice upwards of ten hours a day. One afternoon, my dad knocked on my door around 5 p.m. to ask if I’d eaten lunch yet. It was then that I realized I’d been so engrossed in practicing I had forgotten to eat both lunch and breakfast, and I was ravenous. But not quite ravenous enough to put the deck of cards down just yet.

Ultimately, I took a three-year hiatus in my obsession, brought on by the fact that performing magic for my peers at school had turned me into the “magic kid,” and I didn’t want to be seen as one-dimensional. But on a whim, I volunteered to put together a presentation about the history of magic in my junior year of high school. I ended up pouring nearly 100 hours into developing, scripting, and practicing a 45-minute act that wove together magic performance, theory, and history.

Through this experience, I found a gap in my knowledge that reignited my passion. I had never learned the bottom deal, a highly advanced card-cheating maneuver where you apparently deal the top card of the deck, yet imperceptibly take the bottom card instead. This technique—now my personal favorite—served as a gateway to the sleight of hand techniques used by professional card cheats. It was first described in detail in the “bible” of sleight of hand with cards, The Expert at the Card Table, written in 1902 by the mysterious S.W. Erdnase. His name is an anagram. Backwards, it spells E.S. Andrews, yet to this day, no one knows his true identity, which, considering that he was a sleight of hand expert revealing the secrets of his trade to the public, is probably what he wanted.

After a year of diligently practicing the bottom deal, I set my sights on the holy grail of sleight of hand with cards: the legendary center deal. It’s a move so rare that even in the age of social media, most magicians have never seen it demonstrated. At age 12, I was lucky enough to have met Jason England, one of the top sleight of hand experts in the world. He was kind enough to watch video clips I sent him and provided detailed feedback over email. A few thousand hours of my life later, I could put the four aces into the dead center of the deck, deal out a game of poker, and secretly pull an ace from the center every time I dealt to my hand. Then came the second deal, the Greek deal, false shuffles, stacking the deck, and a handful of techniques better left a secret.

Oddly enough, I have no interest in cheating at cards, nor any interest in gambling for that matter. I’ve been to many casinos in Las Vegas yet have never felt tempted to place a bet. In the words of the American master Ricky Jay, I’m primarily interested in the philosophy of cheating at cards. Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, my friends never let me touch the deck when we play cards.

The Neuroscience Behind Magic

At the University of Pennsylvania, I set my sights on a career as a scientist, unsure of where that might lead. Early on in my freshman year, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to begin taking lessons from Darwin Ortiz, a magician and sleight of hand expert who has authored some of the most important books on magic. Through studying with him, I began to understand why I was so fascinated by gambling sleight of hand despite my indifference towards actual gambling.

Card cheating and con games are the purest form of deception, requiring both manual and psychological dexterity. It’s your eyes against my hands—unless I can find something to distract you at the key moments. A waitress might “accidentally” stumble while handing you your drink at a private poker game. Take your eyes off the dealer for a heartbeat, and they can switch the entire deck of cards for one that is stacked to give you a strong hand, but to give an accomplice a slightly stronger hand. Cheating at cards is both a feat of sleight of hand skill and social engineering.

It was this realization that sparked my interest in the psychological and philosophical implications of deception. Magic has the unique ability to shine a very bright light on the ways in which we lie to one another and to ourselves.

By my junior year of college, I was taking upper-level neuroscience classes focused on topics such as learning, memory, neural circuits, neurodegenerative diseases, and more. I noticed parallels between the sleight of hand I was practicing and the “sleight of mind” I was studying in my classes. Magic doesn’t happen on a regal stage or in the agile hands of the performer. By definition, it happens only in the mind of the observer. From a materialist’s perspective, your experience of the world is constrained by how your brain works. While it receives and interprets a range of stimuli from the outside world, your perception, cognition, and memory can be manipulated to fundamentally alter your experience. These processes are central to the deceptive practices that make magic work.

What is Magic?

Arturo de Ascanio, the father of the Spanish school of magic, wrote that, at its core, magic is the difference between an initial condition and a final condition, leaving the viewer with the impression that there is no naturalistic causal link. As an example, let’s analyze that first card trick that I saw when I was ten. Imagine watching a performer who shows an audience the five of diamonds, initialed with a permanent marker by an audience member. The magician slowly inserts the card into the middle of the deck, snaps his fingers, and then reveals that the card has appeared at the top. It can’t be a duplicate—not only have you examined the deck, but the initials ensure that it must be the same card—and yet, it rose to the top.

Now imagine that you walked into the room after the card had been inserted into the middle of the deck. You would see a person on a stage turn over the top card of the deck—the five of diamonds—and then see the audience applaud, much to your surprise. You might think you had walked into a cult of the five of diamonds, and you would experience no magic.

Similarly, imagine that you saw the magician display the five of diamonds and place it into the middle of the deck, but then you left the room. You would never experience the magician revealing that it had risen to the top, so once again, you would experience no magic. In the first example, you missed out on the initial condition (the card in the middle of the deck), and in the second example, you missed out on the final condition (the card on top of the deck). Without experiencing both conditions, the presence or absence of a naturalistic causal link is irrelevant.

Given this definition, a magician’s primary aim is to ensure that you do not suspect, let alone detect, the true causal link at play. In order to do so, the magician must exploit loopholes in the way you process reality. Thus, all trickery can be described and understood in neuroscientific terms, because it happens only in your mind.

From Obsession to Occupation

While in college, I ventured to the newly opened Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater in Philadelphia to see another magician’s show. I ended up performing at the venue nearly 40 times before graduating in May of 2020.

By filming these performances and analyzing them (as scientifically as one can), I began to hone the craft of performing magic for an audience. Using these videos as audition footage, I was invited to perform at the Hollywood Magic Castle—considered a sort of “mecca” for magicians —and appeared on Penn & Teller: Fool Us! on national television.

Performing magic live is a mixture of all-cylinders-firing focus, exciting and spontaneous interaction, and utterly fulfilling bliss. I realized that if I didn’t give magic a shot as a full-time career, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Now What?

When the pandemic halted live performances, I began teaching private lessons and performing magic shows virtually over every platform under the sun. The primary challenge with virtual magic is making the show feel “interactive” rather than like watching a YouTube video. A key is to constantly “spotlight” audience members as they participate in the tricks. These moments of participation create an opportunity for the same type of spontaneous interaction that makes live performance so engaging.

Looking into the ever-uncertain future, I will continue to hone my sleight of hand skills with cards and occasionally branch out into magic that uses more minimalistic props. I’ve also realized that I don’t want live performance to be the only thing I do. If performers have learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that unpredictability may be the new normal. My goal is to one day have my own, long-running, intimate parlor show at an upscale venue. And, I certainly don’t want to leave my academic roots behind, so I hope to continue collaborating with researchers when possible and to engage in scientific discourse.

When I gaze into the past (though as I’ve learned from magic, our memories are quite unreliable), I can visualize my ten-year-old, bored-out-of-his-mind self at a fundraiser with nothing to do. Thinking back to my first experience witnessing close-up magic, it was the psychological principles at play that set it apart from all magic I’d seen previously. My brain had no explanations or excuses—nowhere to run. And then the trapdoor under reality opened up, dropping me into an exhilarating freefall, bathed in wonder.

Extra: Rising to the Top

This short video of that card-rises-to-the-top trick reveals some important principles of deception. In order to illustrate, Daniel Roy will put aside the nebulously defined “magician’s code” of secrecy and explain how the trick works.

Method A: False Shuffle

The first time Roy does the trick, he gives the deck a few shuffles. He places the signed 5 of diamonds on top of the deck and gives the cards another shuffle, clearly mixing the top card into the deck. Yet, when he turns the top card over, it’s the 5 of diamonds. Through a complex series of sleight of hand maneuvers, he mimics the actions of a real shuffle, yet retains the positions of certain cards.

Method B: The Pass

The second time Roy does the trick, he uses a different method. He places the 5 of diamonds into the middle, then executes a difficult technique known as a pass, where the deck is secretly given a cut, even though it looks like the cards have not changed position. The selected card is revealed to once again be on top.

Method C: The Second Deal

For this final repetition, Roy puts the 5 of diamonds on top of the deck. He apparently takes the card and puts it into the middle of the deck. In reality, he performs a second deal, secretly taking the second card (instead of the top card) and putting it into the middle. In a live performance, he would allow an audience member to square up the deck and turn over the top card, revealing that the 5 of diamonds has risen to the top.

Now that we understand the methods behind the trick, let’s examine the psychological principles that underlie the deception.

Principle 1: Conditioning

A false shuffle (method A) deceives the eye, but to avoid arousing suspicion, the magician can condition you to accept this shuffle by performing the real shuffle a few times beforehand. You become accustomed to whichever manner of shuffling he uses, making the subsequent false version even more deceptive. This may occur because perception involves the intake of external stimuli and the projection of expectations onto the outside world.

Principle 2: The Critical Interval

There’s a problem with methods A and B. After the selected card is placed in the middle, sleight of hand must be performed to bring the card to the top. The time in between card-goes-in-the-middle and card-appears-on-top is when the audience would naturally suspect sleight of hand to occur. This period is known as the critical interval and is defined as the time between the last sighting of the initial condition and the first sighting of the final condition. The initial condition is the 5 of diamonds going into the middle. The final condition is the 5 of diamonds appearing on top. Ideally, the sleight of hand would be moved out of this interval. That’s exactly what happens in method C: The second deal is performed before the card is put into the middle.

Principle 3: Memory Manipulation

In method C, Roy puts the deck on the table and, in a live performance, would let an audience member square the deck. To create the impression that this final moment was “hands off,” he might claim that he won’t touch the deck from now on, or even walk away from the deck, putting distance between himself and the cards. He’s attempting to distort the audience’s experience by narrating a slightly inaccurate version of events—a process known as post-event misinformation. Furthermore, people vastly overestimate their ability to accurately remember past events, which makes memory manipulation techniques more powerful.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.

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