Teller Talks

Teller, the silent partner of Penn Jillette can be quite articulate, especially when addressing neuroscientists. In a recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine, he discusses why magic is not easy to pick apart with machines such as MRIs and eye tracking equipment. The effectiveness of magic depends upon the manipulation of perception rather than the bio-mechanics of our senses.

According to teller, there are 6 basic principles magicians use.

  1. Exploit pattern recognition
  2. Make the secret a lot more troublethan the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke.
  3. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.
  4. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
  5. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  6. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely

He then goes on to describe a card trick.

I cut a deck of cards a couple of times, and you glimpse flashes of several different cards. I turn the cards facedown and invite you to choose one, memorize it and return it. Now I ask you to name your card. You say (for example), “The queen of hearts.” I take the deck in my mouth, bite down and groan and wiggle to suggest that your card is going down my throat, through my intestines, into my bloodstream and finally into my right foot. I lift that foot and invite you to pull off my shoe and look inside. You find the queen of hearts. You’re amazed. If you happen to pick up the deck later, you’ll find it’s missing the queen of hearts.

Teller then goes beyond the boundaries of magicians and gives up the secret of the trick,

Teller 2007

and how that secret uses the 7 techniques described above. I won’t reveal the secret, I’ll let Teller do that himself.

Understanding the tricks of magicians puts them as the ideal debunkers of many scammers, especially those claiming to have psychic powers. Most of the rest of us are easily fooled by the misdirection used by experts, but magicians are not. Two of the most well known debunkers are Harry Houdini and James Randi, neither of whom ever met anyone who was able to prove psychic ability, despite Randi’s $1,000,000 prize offering.

I make no pretensions to be an expert–I recognize that I can easily be fooled by magicians. Last year, I attended a performance  by Ted Outerbridge, a Canadian magician, and even though I was sitting in the 3rd row, and watched very very closely, I was only able to figure out a few of his tricks.  He refers to himself as an illusionist, and makes no claims to perform ‘real magic’ but still, the untrained are unable to follow his sleight of hand.

As a person who tries to be skeptical, I recognize that I need to turn to people who have expertise in specific areas; people who are able to understand the nuances in their field and who do not have conflicting interests. My education is in biology, specifically pharmacology and I have a fairly good understanding of human physiology. This allows me to catch many flaws in false medical claims, but in areas such as psychic phenomena, I’ll trust the reporting of people like Teller.

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