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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 4

MIND Reviews: Fooling Houdini

Fooling Houdini, Alex Stone



HarperCollins

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind
by Alex Stone. HarperCollins, 2012
($26.99)

A magician's psychological subterfuge requires years to master, as Stone writes in Fooling Houdini, a foray into the underbelly of the magic culture.

As an aspiring magician, Stone quickly realizes he needs to do more than practice tricks. He has to penetrate this unique subculture, in which apprentices seek out masters to hone their performance and learn codes of conduct. Magicians once relied on a vow of secrecy: never tell the audience how you performed a trick. This discretion was born in part of magic's seedy roots in a time when a card cheat could wipe out the house and the slightest slipup might lead to a severe beating or worse.

Magic is much safer today, and secrets are no longer so closely guarded. The celebrity illusionist duo Penn and Teller discovered, for example, that even when they explained a trick to an audience, people were still fooled—and all the more impressed at the feat.

As magic grew more sophisticated, practitioners turned to behavioral science and mathematics for fresh ideas on how to exploit our perceptions. For example, in Daniel Simons's famous “invisible gorilla” experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of people passing a basketball and tally the number of passes that occurred. Subjects who counted correctly tended to completely miss the appearance of a person in a gorilla suit. Called inattentional blindness, this phenomenon enables many illusory feats.

Stone discovers that as magicians perfect their trade, fewer tricks catch them off guard; however, he finds that even the experts can be deceived. Everyone, especially magicians, yearns for the thrill of being fooled.

Using vibrant, clear examples, Stone reveals that magic is not just shakedowns and con games. Rather the art of deception allows us to peek into our subconscious and understand the mathematical and psychological gears that make it turn.

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