Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion

One of the first tricks in Penn and Teller‘s Las Vegas show begins when Teller – the short, quiet one – strolls onstage with a lit cigarette, inhales, drops it to the floor, and stamps it out. Then he takes another cigarette from his suit pocket and lights it.

No magic there, right? But then Teller pivots so the audience can see him from the other side. He goes through the same set of motions, except this time everything is different: Much of what just transpired, the audience now perceives, was a charade, a carefully orchestrated stack of lies. He doesn’t stamp out the first cigarette – he palms it, then puts it in his ear. There is no second cigarette; it’s a pencil stub. The smoke from the first butt is real, but the lighter used on the pencil is actually a flashlight. Yet the illusion is executed so perfectly that every step looks real, even when you’re shown that it is not.

The trick is called Looks Simple, and the point is that even a puff on a cigarette, closely examined, can disintegrate into smoke and mirrors. "People take reality for granted," Teller says shortly before stepping onstage. "Reality seems so simple. We just open our eyes and there it is. But that doesn’t mean it is simple."

For Teller (that’s his full legal name), magic is more than entertainment. He wants his tricks to reveal the everyday fraud of perception so that people become aware of the tension between what is and what seems to be. Our brains don’t see everything – the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. "Every time you perform a magic trick, you’re engaging in experimental psychology," Teller says. "If the audience asks, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ then the experiment was successful. I’ve exploited the efficiencies of your mind."

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May 5, 2009