True story: Teller of Penn & Teller fame was once a teacher at my high school — The Central New Jersey Academy of IROC and Invective.
Also true — he will literally blind you with science.
This month’s Wired features a cool interview with the silent, diminutive half of the avant garde magic duo. In the interview we learn that Teller is a student of cognitive psychology — exploiting the brain’s hard-wiring to play a trick on you that seems obvious after the fact.
Consider “the Cowboy Trick,” in which an audience volunteer is asked to videotape Penn, who is holding a plastic cow in his hand and promising to make it disappear. While the volunteer stares through the viewfinder of the camera, Teller silently rearranges the entire stage around him. The trick is that the volunteer is so focused on one object and waiting for it to change, he doesn’t notice that every single OTHER thing around him has changed while he waits:
“The idea for this trick came straight from science,” Teller says. “We thought it would be fun to show people how bad they are at noticing stuff.” Called change blindness, the phenomenon is illustrated in a video (on YouTube) that inspired the duo. Shot in 2007 by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, it ostensibly documents a simple card trick—the backs of the cards in a deck are magically transformed from blue to red. But during the course of the video, Wiseman’s shirt, his assistant’s shirt, the tablecloth, and the backdrop all change color, too. Most viewers watch the card trick unspool and miss the other alterations. Attention, it turns out, is like a spotlight. When it’s focused on something, we become oblivious to even obvious changes outside its narrow beam. What magicians do, essentially, is misdirect—pivot that spotlight toward the wrong place at the right time.
At the risk of giving away too much, I confess that I have borrowed from Penn & Teller’s technique. While you were reading this post, I placed a single downy goose feather on top of your head.
Also, I fucked your mom.
GOTCHA! THERE’S NO FEATHER!