What magic can teach us about our brains

Sep 9, 2016

By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

My card – the jack of diamonds, the one with my name scrawled on it twice in green Sharpie — is in the right pocket of Gustav Kuhn’s jeans. Just a second ago it was on the top of the deck, and less than a second before that it was in the middle.

“You don’t believe me? I’ll do it again. It’s in the middle of the deck, and then it comes riffling through the air,” Kuhn says, whistling as the card makes its imaginary flight from deck to pocket. There it is again, peeking out from his pocket, my green name clearly visible. Then, in a flash of showmanship, he produces the card in his hand — and the rest of the deck is now in his pocket.

It’s a basic but astounding trick, not the least because of what happens in my brain to enable me to experience it. It’s impossible for a card to dematerialize and reappear somewhere else. I know this. Anyone who’s ever seen a magic show knows this. But what our eyes tell us and what we experience create different narratives — I never saw him put the card in his pocket, or nestle it in the deck, because he was directing my attention elsewhere — and point to the quirks of human cognition. That we greet the evidence of these quirks, the magical effect, with delight, awe, and even wonder is all part of magic’s peculiar charm.


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2 comments on “What magic can teach us about our brains

  • Distraction techniques and card manipulation easily fool those unfamiliar with conjuring, just as theistic semantic ramblings deceive those lacking training in forming clear definitions or logical reasoning.



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  • When conjurors do it, it’s a marvel to watch, knowing we’re being fooled but not seeing how it’s done.

    When political power does it, it’s terrifying and frustrating to be the child who sees the naked emperor striding thru the streets, while all around the adults are nodding sagely and discussing the finer points of his tailoring, repeating what their pundits tell them, no matter how much it contradicts the evidence of one’s own eyes. 2 + 2 = 3, or 5, or … what answer do you want me to say?

    Learned journals detail the unique optical effects that made you think you saw a naked figure, no, that was just a trick of the light, the emperor remains finely dressed at all times. There there child, don’t be silly, the emperor wouldn’t do such a foolish thing. Now, stop saying that before you get called crazy…… keep the head down, like the rest of us. Did we actually see the emperor? Well, not really, we had our heads down. But the pundits told us what they saw, and then we could see it too.



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