Magic is about entertaining audiences. Young magicians should not focus on methodology at the expense of theatrics.

Mexico 1981. Self Portrait.

In Houdini’s Right Way To Do Wrong the great escape artist gives attention to the matter of “performance” in the magic arts. It’s not just technique, though technique has great value. Presentation is equally important. Though part of the magician’s creed is to never share one’s secrets with non-magicians, there is a second rule that is part of the creed. Never perform a trick badly. That’s paraphrased, but is essentially the nut of it. Don’t botch a trick so badly as to give it away.

So, I have been reading a fascinating book about magic, but from a different angle. It’s called Sleights of Mind, by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde. The book is by scientists, not entertainers and its subtitle is What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.

It’s a novel approach to brain science. Much of what neuroscientists are now learning has already been learned by magicians more than a century ago. The hand is quicker than the eye? It’s much more than that. Now you see it, now you don’t.

People who go to magic shows get a thrill from being deceived. But there are reasons the tricks fool us, and the master magicians get away with mental mayhem. Part of the reason is that our brain’s ability to take in data has many flaws.

Yes, it is a remarkable organ, but it has an amazing variety of shortcomings. The ways in which afterimages, perspective, inattentional blindness and viewers’ expectations get manipulated are each demonstrated and spelled out.

In an early part of the book the authors share how scientists were fooled by Uri Geller and his spoon-bending, which they called the Geller Effect. The reason why scientists were so gullible is that scientists are honest people and not aware of how low magicians are willing to stoop to deceive them. The better the scientist, the more gullible.

I am immediately reminded of Houdini’s efforts to unmask frauds and especially those who bought into the notion of communicating with the dead through mediums. But another historical moment comes to mind as well. When the duck-billed platypus was discovered, the scientists in England thought it such a bizarre creature that it had to be a hoax.

The reason for this incredulity has to do with historical context. Some international travelers had previously come home with other strange creatures which indeed had been hoaxes. Sailors were sold miniature “mermaids” in which the upper half of a monkey would be sewn to the lower half of a fish. English scientists assumed the platypus was of similar “creative” origin.

Alas. It’s fun to be fooled by magicians. It’s not so much fun to be fooled by hustlers. Here’s a story about Terry Roses, a modern day magician who like Houdini has been in the business of unmasking frauds at the gaming tables.

The first is titled An Introduction to Gaming Cheats from the Wild West to the 21st Century: The Magic Kingdom of Terry Roses. I wrote this after visiting his secret laboratory in 2016.

As a teen Steve Martin began his career doing magic at Disneyland. Johnny Carson became an accomplished magician in his youth. When you follow your passion, you never really know where it will lead.

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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