TV Magic

Today, I was interviewed by Phoenix's KTVK Channel 3 for a segment they're preparing on psychology/neuroscience and magic, specifically focusing on the work that Steve Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde are doing at the Barrow Neurological Institute. I've done magic on TV a few times before, and each time I'm struck by how limiting the camera is. After capturing some of the first film footage of a performing magician, psychologist Alfred Binet noted that the magic was not nearly as effective on film. Why might this be?

Magic is an inherently social enterprise, with each trick being a shared experience of something wondrous between the magician and the spectators. The most effective elements of misdirection build upon social norms. For example, if you want to divert attention away from your hands at an integral moment, there's no better way than asking someone a question or simply saying their name. Social norms dictate that we are to look a person in the eyes while answering a question. Not only is this person's attention diverted, but the rest of the audience typically shifts their attention to the person answering the question. The camera does not allow for this kind of social interaction between magician and viewer.

The other weapon in the magician's misdirection arsenal is joint attention. The magician's focus of attention suggests to the audience where their attention should be placed. You've probably had the experience of being compelled to follow the gaze of another person. In many instances it's exceedingly difficult to resist. Tomasello, Hare, Lehmann, and Call (2007) argued that we evolved the whites of our eyes for the purpose of facilitating joint attention. In fact, our closest relatives in the animal world, the African great apes, do not have enlarged sclera, and consequently aren't as sensitive to others' shifts in attention as even young human infants are. In most cases, television drastically weakens the effect of joint attention, nullifying its ability to misdirect.

In their 2005 Perception paper, Kuhn and Land presented the results of an experiment employing the following magic trick, performed live.

When performed live, only 20% of participants noticed the magician drop the cigarette in his lap on the first viewing. Kuhn, Tatler, Findlay, and Cole (2008) repeated the experiment, this time with participants watching a video of the magic trick. In this instance, the percentage of participants who noticed the drop increased to nearly 57%. In theory, the only difference between the experiments was the ability for the magician to interact and make eye contact with the spectator.

Unfortunately, much of my magic employs misdirection of this kind. I have a difficult time thinking of any piece from my repertoire that doesn't contain an element of social misdirection. Despite these limitations, I was able to pull together a few magical effects from my act that highlight some of the psychological tendencies that magicians prey upon. Once I know when the segment is going to air, I'll post more information here.


Kuhn, G. & Tatler, B. W. (2005). Magic and fixation: Now you don't see it, now you do. Perception, 34, 1155-1161.

Kuhn, G., Tatler, B. W., Findlay, J. M., & Cole, G. G. (2008). Misdirection in magic: Implications for the relationship between eye gaze and attention. Visual Cognition, 16, 391-405.

Tomasello, M., Hare, B., Lehmann, H., & Call, J. (2007). Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: The cooperative eye hypothesis. Journal of Human Evolution, 52, 314-320.

Friday Magic Showcase: Cyril Takayama

Although he was born and raised in Hollywood, Cyril Takayama is most well-known in Japan where he has performed on a number of street magic television programs. You may also recognize him from the short-lived "T.H.E.M" program that aired on MTV. I think Cyril's popularity stems from his clean, in-your-face style. There is very little subterfuge in his magic...He gets right to the point. I hope you enjoy this video. It broke my brain.

A Casual Evening of Strolling Magic

Those of you living in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area should head over to Sign of the Whale in Tempe this evening (Wednesday, June 24th) for their Ladies' Night. My new friend Ken will be guest bartending, and I'll be performing a little casual strolling magic. You can find more information on the Facebook page I created for the event, or the page. It should be a good time!

Buying Time

It's been a busy couple of weeks, and I've neglected this blog terribly. I have a couple of posts in the works, but also have bigger fish to fry, this week. In lieu of anything meaningful or new, I'm going to buy myself some more time by posting this video from my recent performance at the Phoenix Clean Stand-Up Comedy Showcase. Let's see if I can improvise some way in which what you're about to see is related to psychology...ummm...I got it:

Most magic tricks rely on the fact that people have built up a lifetime of experiences, drastically biasing the way they interact with the world. Magicians want you to make assumptions about what you're watching, as it distracts you from the true method. Once you have realized that your assumptions are false, it's too late for you to go back. Watch how I lead you down a garden path and then pull the rug out from under you. There. How was that?

Friday Magic Showcase: Juan Mayoral

Among stage magicians, none has been more influential on my stage magic philosophy than Juan Mayoral. Mayoral was a performer at my very first magic convention, and his act was far different from the other acts I saw. He employed technology in a way that others were not. His magic could be described as "artful," a term rarely used to describe magic. He was theatrical and moving. I was immediately infatuated with his style. Years later, Juan continues to create new and amazing magical effects using the latest technologies. I hope you enjoy Juan Mayoral.

Follow-Up: Sweden's Got Talent

Magician Charlie Caper has won "Talang 2009" (aka "Sweden's Got Talent").

Friday Magic Showcase: Rudy Coby

If you live near Minneapolis, MN, you should head on over to the Galaxy Theater at Valleyfair and check out their newest attraction: Rudy Coby. Known for his character, Labman, Coby has a style that's hard to describe. He's part cartoon character, part mad scientist. His show is original in every way. Coby had two well-received television specials in the mid-90's. For the past six year, he's been working with Marilyn Manson, designing illusions for Manson's touring show. Here's some classic Rudy Coby:

Magic & Technology Workshop

The most recent issue of Nature contains a short article about a workshop that happened last month in Lima, Peru, hosted by Medialab Prado. "Interactivos? Lima '09" brought together engineers and artists with the hope of generating new illusions based on the most modern technologies, and the finished products did not disappoint. The installations produced during the meeting included a magic wand that could change the shape of a person's shadow, a box that transformed a person's arm into the leg of a lion, and a telekinetic spoon that was moved by a hidden theremin (fast-forward to the 3:50 mark in the following video to see a demo of the spoon in action).

This conference was appropriate, as magicians have always been among the first to learn about and exploit new technologies. Famously, Robert-Houdin, the oft-labeled "father of modern magic," used electromagnetism even before scientists had developed applications for it. He used it in an illusion called the "Light and Heavy Chest." From
He invited a spectator on stage to lift the small wooden box he said he kept to store his money. His volunteer always did this easily. Then the magician commanded the box to stay where it was, so it could not be stolen. No matter how hard the volunteer tried after that, he couldn't move it.

Hidden inside the wooden chest was a metal plate, and an electromagnet sat under the stage. When his assistant turned on the magnet, the strong attraction made it impossible to move the chest. Robert-Houdin wrote in his autobiography that at this time "the phenomena of electromagnetism were wholly unknown to the general public. I took very good care not to enlighten my audience as to this marvel of science."

It's even
rumored that Robert-Houdin used this effect to prevent a war in Algeria.

Sweden's Got Talent

Although I've been unable to find much more information about this, iTricks is reporting that there are two magic acts in the finale of "Sweden's Got Talent." Who knew that magic was so big in Sweden?! I think I'll just go ahead and take credit for the popularity of magic in Sweden. When I was in there in 2001, I performed for the American ambassador to Sweden...I'm sure it caught on just after my visit. Anyway, the first act in the finals is Brynolf & Ljung. Here they are performing a pretty innovative set:

The other act is a man named Charlie Caper. Here he is doing some equally creative (and arguably, more original) magic:

I think I'm rooting for the second guy...His climax is a change-blindness trick (the bowtie vanishes long before you realize that it's gone)!

Follow-Up: Psychic Tweets

Over at, Richard Wiseman has published the results of his recent Twitter experiment on remote viewing (previously blogged about here). Wiseman traveled to a number of different secret locations. Once there, he directed Twitter participants to "tweet" about any feelings they were receiving about the secret location. Later, he sent them a link to a website that presented participants with images of five different places. They had to choose the location they believed Wiseman to be at. In addition, Wiseman probed participants about their belief in the paranormal and psychic ability.

Not surprisingly, the group (of nearly 1000) failed miserably. Wiseman treated the most frequently selected location as the group's choice in each of four trials. The group failed to choose the correct location on every trial. In addition, those who proclaimed belief in psychic ability performed no better on the task than those who professed no belief. Granted, this is far from being an ideal experimental design, as anyone with genuine psychic ability would get washed away by all the guessing within the group. What this study does accomplish is a demonstration of a possible (and promising) use for social networking sites by the scientific community.

Some folks are getting all bent out of shape about this experiment. I suggest you head over to the comments section on and enjoy the circus.

Friday Magic Showcase: Al Flosso (1895-1976)

Dubbed "The Coney Island Fakir" by Milton Berle, Al Flosso perfected the side-show barker character and was the first magician to appear on the "Ed Sullivan Show". For nearly 40 years, Flosso owned and operated the famed Martinka & Co. magic shop in New York, previously owned by Houdini. Flosso's first major business choice was to stop cleaning the magic shop, as he didn't want to disturb Houdini's dust. His son, Jackie Flosso, took over the business after his father's death.

Results: Japanese Words Quiz

A few weeks ago, I invited you to take part in an online survey for which I provided very little background. Your job was to determine which of two English words was the appropriate translation of a Japanese word. Since most people in the Western world have very little knowledge of the Japanese language (aside from "konnichiwa" and "sayonara") you were probably just guessing. But, is there anything systematic about people's guessing in an experiment like this?

What you didn't know while taking the quiz was that the appropriate translation was not always provided as one of the answers. Sometimes the Japanese word was paired with its actual translation and an unrelated item. Other times, it was paired with the opposite of its actual translation and an unrelated item (so, the Japanese word for "bright" was paired with "dark"). A recent experiment in press at the journal Cognition used a similar design. Nygaard, Cook, and Namy (in press) taught English-speaking participants the translations of a series of Japanese words that were presented auditorily, but unbeknownst to the participants, they were either learning the direct translation of the word, it's antonym, or an unrelated translation.

Nygaard et al. found that participants learned the items more efficiently (evidenced by accuracy and response time in a recognition task) if they were learning the true meaning or its antonym than if they were learning an unrelated translation.

from Nygaard et al. (in press)

Languages are thought to be abstract and arbitrary, with no systematicity between word sounds and word meanings (aside from onomatopoetic words). The authors argue that this experiment suggests a different story, that there is some sort of underlying sound to meaning correspondence that is systematic across language systems, as none of the participants in this study had even a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese. The antonyms were thought to benefit learning since they were from the same semantic category as the paired Japanese item.

I find this conclusion highly suspect. The authors point out a possible confound that I think is at the heart of the effect being seen here. During the learning phase of the experiment, the Japanese tokens were presented auditorily, paired with a written English translation on the computer screen. The spoken Japanese items were, of course, provided by a native Japanese speaker, meaning that the speaker knew the actual meanings of the words they were saying. Spoken language is a much richer source of information than the printed word. From a speaker's voice, we can ascertain things like their gender and age as well as gain information that can aid in the understanding of the words they're saying. In fact, the authors cite research demonstrating that listeners can intuit word meanings based only on voice inflections (or prosody).

In the "Japanese Words Quiz," I wanted to determine whether people could guess the meanings of the Japanese words without any sort of auditory input. Granted, this is a much different experiment from Nygaard et al. and I didn't have a fully-counterbalanced design, but if there is any systematic phonetic (or orthographic) to semantic relationship that readers can pick up on across languages, then it would be quite possible that they could guess the meanings above chance levels.

I had planned to carry out a full statistical analysis of this data, but looking at the raw numbers tells me that further analysis is not necessary. The results were almost perfectly at chance, with an overall accuracy of 51%. Accuracy on matched trials (where the actual translation was one of the possible choices) was 52%, and accuracy on antonym trials was 50% exactly. That's not a promising outcome.

I'm thinking of following up on this experiment with a formal replication using spoken word tokens generated by someone who doesn't speak Japanese but who has training in Japanese pronunciation...Someone like a vocal performance major. Thus, they would be unequipped to provide prosody that would be informative to the true meaning of the word. Could be fun! Stay tuned.


Nygaard, L. C., Cook, A. E., & Namy, L. L. (in press). Sound to meaning correspondences facilitate word learning. Cognition. (link)

Magic Tony @ the Clean Comedy Showcase


What are you planning to do this weekend? That's right...nothing. You have no plans (other than just sitting at home hoping that I'll post a weekend blog entry, which just doesn't happen, folks). So, let me give you a plan for the weekend.

Saturday evening, I'll be opening for Robert Mac at Phoenix's "Clean Stand-Up Comedy Showcase." There. You've got all the makins' for a wonderful evening: magic, comedy, and ... comedy. Best of all, it'll only cost you $5. Here's all the information you need in order to plan the night of your life:

What: Clean Stand-Up Comedy Showcase
When: Saturday, June 6th, 7:00PM
Where: Mountain View Rec. Center, 2927 East Campbell Ave., Phoenix, AZ (map)
Why: Seriously? You're asking why?

If you want to see all of this information repeated, please feel free to visit my facebook page for the event here. Here's a video of Robert Mac's stand-up to whet your whistle.

Psychic Tweets

Today is your chance to become a part of history, folks. Psychologist Richard Wiseman (along with New Scientist magazine) is carrying out the first experiment examining psychic ability via Twitter. From Richard's blog:
The experiment will examine the possible existence of ‘remote viewing’ – the alleged ability to psychically identify a distant location.

So, how is the experiment going to work?

Well, at 3pm (UK time) each day, I will travel to a randomly selected location. Once there, I will send a Tweet, asking everyone to Tweet about their thoughts concerning the nature of the location. Thirty minutes later, I will send another Tweet linking to a website that will allow everyone to view photographs of five locations (the actual location and four decoys), think about the thoughts and images that came to them in the thirty minutes before, and vote on which of the five they believe to be the actual target location.

If the majority of people select the correct target then the trial will count as a hit, otherwise it will count as a miss. There will be trials at 3pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week. Three or more hits in four trials will be seen as supporting the existence of extrasensory perception.

In addition to these formal trials, there will be an informal trial (to test the procedure) today at 3pm.

As well as being the first ever scientific experiment on Twitter, I think this is going to be the largest ever test of Remote Viewing, so I am excited about the project.

So, head on over to Richard's Twitter stream at to take part in the fun!