Teller Teaches Magic for Science’s Sake

Inside Magic Image of TellerTeller, magician and silent half of the Inside Magic Favorite duo Penn & Teller, offers his thoughts on neuroscience’s interest in what we do for a living.  His article currently appears on and is a delight to read.  (We use the word ‘delight’ advisedly – whatever that means). 

Teller takes readers through the seven essential principles of magic to support his thesis that neuroscientists are novices at deception. Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.

Yes, there are some who decry the exposure (sort of) element but even this learned journal of all things magic cannot join in said decrying.  There is no way to describe how magicians manipulate perception without examples.  Teller does not expose more than he needs to illustrate and educate.  Yes, if you are one of the many who regularly perform David Abbott’s Floating Ball routine or the Cockroach Production, some of your audiences may be wise to your shenanigans but that’s probably alright. 

We did a quick comparative analysis of our two databases, Tricks Currently Performed by Magicians (trik_by_trikkrs.dbf) and Tricks Exposed on the Internets (trik_made_nakd.dbf) and found a statistically insignificant intersection of the two populations.  (Interestingly, the “I got your nose” trick is the most exposed in English versions of the Interwebs).  When we compared the results of the first analysis with our database of those who regularly read Smithsonian publications (nerds.dbf), the chance of meaningful exposure is minimal and unlikely to have any lasting effect on the ozone layer as we have come to understand it.

Some would argue our analytical approach to exposure should not be considered in isolation.  It is the principle of the thing, they will mumble while gesturing appropriately.   If we permit Teller to expose magic tricks no one else is doing or would do, we all suffer and magic is made permanently weaker.  As our grandfather, Thomas “Big Tom” Hardy once said, “No man is an island although some are easily compared to peninsulas.  If one suffers from tapeworm, does he not eat more food at the family trough than his brother unless they are Siamese (‘conjoined’) Twins?”  

Perhaps, but that only proves Teller’s thesis.

But magic’s not easy to pick apart with machines, because it’s not really about the mechanics of your senses. Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information.

Should Teller be shunned for not really exposing magic?  Should we really look at the actual impact of his use of arcane and impractical “secrets” to teach?  Or should we just allow our knee-jerk, gut-feeling, envy-based bias to cloud our perception?

We side with Teller.  Not just because he is a fantastic writer, a great magician, a fine historian and a former Latin teacher – but mostly.  His last comment on the study of deception by scientists typifies the style and substance of this member of our art that we have come to love:

But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception: Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

Check out the full article at here.

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