Penn & Teller in Wired magazine


The May "Mystery" issue of Wired magazine focuses on puzzles and perception. There are some excellent pieces including one by J.J. Abrams, the creator of the Lost television show (and previously featured here).

Just as J.J. Abrams is a genuine fan of mystery (albeit sometimes of the manipulative Pop culture variety), Penn & Teller are fans of atheism and are shown as artists collaborating with scientists in pursuit of the cutting edge of perception.

What's surprising is just how limited the repertoire of magical illusions actually is. The Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper lists nine fundamental "conjuring effects" of modern magic, from the vanish and the restoration to telekinesis and ESP. While these basic tricks have been varied endlessly—you can "restore" a cut rope, a sawed-in-half assistant, a shredded piece of paper—each of the effects relies on a specific perceptual phenomenon. This may be why exposing the "secret" of a magic trick is so often deflating. Most of the time, the secret is that we're gullible and our brains are riddled with blind spots.

This isn't just the stuff of magic shows; those perceptual phenomena also allow us to make sense of reality, as we translate the blur of photons hitting our retinas into a coherent world of three-dimensional forms.
While I enjoy exploring the psychology of magic, the meme of magician as all knowing expert of perception gets tiring. Don't get me wrong, it's a compelling and natural narrative and has some truth (and marketing cache) but at a certain point magic simply becomes a science study and is no longer good emotionally compelling theater. But I guess, magic has always held a unique position somewhere between science, art and religion. Maybe the science storyline will give way to magic being treated as an art form and conjurers grouped with other professions exploring important questions of human life with humility.

For those interested in magic psychology, Jonah Lehrer, the author of the article, has an enjoyable blog called The Frontal Cortex.