Brain Magic

Pax Arcana

A few days ago I watched this cool video of mentalist Keith Barry performing at the 2004 TED convention. His whole shtick is that he tells you that nothing he’s doing is supernatural, yet his abilities are enough to make your brain disagree with itself. Or something.

Basically these things are all feats of misdirection. Philosopher Daniel Dennett takes things a step further here, arguing that the fundamental stumbling block for most of us is that we consider our consciousness to be one entity, when really it’s a grouping of separate mental components. Brain magic happens when we can’t explain variations in perception between different mental components, so like the advanced predictive computers we are, we invent a story.

Dennett relates the story of Ralph Hull, a card trick “magician” from Ohio who was famous for a trick called “The Tuned Deck,” because he could consistently trick groups of fellow magicians with it. Basically he would take a deck of cards, spread them on the table, and do the conventional “pick a card, any card” thing. One of the magicians would pick a card and place it back in the deck. Hull would pretend to “listen” to the deck with typical magician flamboyance and would eventually produce the card again.

Here is where it gets interesting. In front of groups of trained magicians, Hull would repeat the trick two or three times and they would never get it.

The trick of “The Tuned Deck” was that there was no one trick. Magicians know there are, say, six or seven basic ways to do a “pick a card, any card” trick. So Hull would employ version 1 the first time around when they weren’t paying very close attention. On the next go-round, knowing they’d all be checking for version 1, he’d employ version 2. The next time, knowing the other magicians would probably suspect version 2, he would use version 3, and so on and so on.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

And now here’s a video of a guy on a bike smashing his face into a sign:

Mind Hacks: Dennett on magic and misdirection [Mind Hacks]

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