Keith Barry's "brain magic" on TED Talks

I enjoyed this video of Keith Barry performing feats of "brain magic" at TED.

First, Keith Barry shows us how our brains can fool our bodies -- in a trick that works via podcast too. Then he involves the audience in some jaw-dropping (and even a bit dangerous) feats of brain magic.
Link (Thanks, Wellington!)


  1. That was really impressive and well done. I’m still trying to process all that information.

    Fascinating for sure.

    Thanks Mark,

  2. Everyone on the TED site is tearing this video a new one in the comments section– and yet, you can see the science in what he’s saying if you pay attention to what he talks about when it comes to manipulating the audience’s perception right before his first one. If you pay attention, you can figure out how he did his arm-twisting trick.

    Frankly, I was riveted from start to finish by the illusions. They’re not tricks– that’s something whores do for money.

  3. Sigh. Good tricks (the last one was nice), but he could do without all this “energy” BS. Not Derren Brown quality, but perhaps in a few years…

  4. @ #3 Squirrel X

    I’ve done a bit of magic and hypnosis in my time. It’s a constant that people who consider themselves rational and intelligent (basically all geeks, then) hate the idea that they can be so easily distracted, fooled and manipulated. The most common complaints I hear revolve around the techniques being too simple, or an illusion’s mechanism being obvious when you’ve re-watched it a few times and had time to think.

    This is all true of course, but doesn’t change the fact that they were completely taken in by it, which drives people crazy. The vast majority of people are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that, as a species, we’re easily distracted, irrational and suggestible.

  5. I had to cringe at the last trick – I remember seeing some YouTube clips of (*ahem*) less capable illusionists getting it wrong, and the disastrous consequences to them and their (literal) victims.

    The driving clip is particularly good. If his constraints were correct (he couldn’t see through the mask; the car wasn’t rigged in any way; and his passenger had never met him before), it’s difficult for me to explain away. Even if he had memorized the course and used her audible responses as cues, the techniques would demand far too much precision at the (apparent) speeds he was traveling. Anyone want to take a crack at this?

    – David Stein

  6. Hw ct th rch gks gt mgcn fr thr lttl prty.

    Call me crazy but most birthday parties I’ve been to don’t cost over and above 6 thousand dollars to attend. Still – whatever turns them on. Dd thy gt clwn t? Pls sy thy dd. Prhps pny rds? Pppt shw? Blln nmls?

    At least when Penn and Teller give a lecture behind misdirection – they actually show how they do it. Much more educational. Still cute magic show. Next year I want that pony.

  7. Don’t you have to teach the crowd something at TED? And magic is misleading is the first thing any magician tells you at the beginning of a performance no news there.

    Frustrating that he didn’t reveal at least one trick (illusion).

    Perhaps this guy is just the master of the good guess.

    “It’s a constant that people who consider themselves rational and intelligent (basically all geeks, then) hate the idea that they can be so easily distracted, fooled and manipulated.”

    Hate is a strong word, I just think the two best groups or rubes are the people that are stupid enough to think its magic, and the people smart enough to think they can figure it out.

    It’s not and it will take you as long as it took them to develop it.

  8. Didn’t Criss Angel (or however you spell his name) do the exact same car trick already?

  9. The tricks (ahem, illusions) were pretty impressive – especially the last one. But I am disappointed as well that he didn’t explain at least one of them.

    That, and the fact that ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe wasn’t playing in the background.

  10. @ REDSHIRT77

    agreed, I thought he was going to teach us something. Sure he proved that our minds can be manipulated but he did that with the first trick.

    Very cool performance but it didn’t feel like a Ted talk because I didn’t learn anything.

  11. I can’t explain the other tricks, but watch his leg carefully when he’s at the table with the guy. He directs your attention to the woman (he even warns us earlier that he does that), which keeps your attention away from his leg as he signals the guy to move his hand. Pretty sly.

  12. I dunno, all pretty standard mentalist illusions, and I’ve seen much better with better explanations.

    And I agree with Redshirt, didn’t really feel like a TED talk, nothing was learned, nothing was gained, just…distraction for the rich geeks.

  13. @ #5- IF all of his constraints were true. I assume they weren’t.

    I would guess that the black hood can be seen through, and either the blindfold underneath was moved, or is only blinding in one direction and was flipped around when he put it on.

  14. Watching it again, I’m guessing the blindfold must have been moved, because he does explicitly state that he couldn’t see through the blindfold.

  15. This video shouldn’t be on the TED site.

    TED is meant to illuminate. Now I’m just confused and afraid.

  16. Part of the magician’s unspoken contract with the audience is that he has permission to lie completely in order to create the illusion of impossibility. The only reason for you to accept anything any magician says at face value is if you want to be entertained and go along for the ride.

    If you don’t want to take that trip, please don’t bother watching. If you do, enjoy the hidden artistry but don’t try to extrapolate any scientific or cognitive principles based on what you think you’ve seen.

    BTW, if you want to see arguably the greatest mentalism show ever, check out the brilliant English magician Derren Brown’s award-winning live show “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a 74-minute PhD in advanced scripting, routining, and performance.

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I think it’s perfect for TED – I learned a lot watching it.

    The only one I’ve (maybe) got figured out are the floating hand / gesture / feel illusions:

    “In a moment, you’ll feel a certain pressure. I want you to be aware of the pressure. And I want you to allow your hand to float slowly back up from the tabletop as you feel the pressure release.”

    The pressure is on his foot (Mr. Barry is stepping on it). Neat that the illusion is really in what he verbally communicates rather than sleight of hand.

    1. Yes and he also tells the participant at the end to forget everything that just happened! Thanks for explaining this

  18. Personally, I think that this was a horrible TED “talk”. Cute illusions, but otherwise utterly worthless. He makes the argument that our minds can be tricked, and then utterly fails to prove it. The only thing the he proved was that through some mechanism, which could include simple collusion with the participants, mechanical devices, and other methods which fail to prove his point, he was able to pull off a few illusions.

    Uh, great.

    If you want to see something truly impressive and VASTLY more enlightening, try Darren Brown. Not only does he fool you, but he actually then goes and shows you HOW he fooled you and why you are a dumb sucker. Unlike this guy, he makes the assertion that you can be fooled, fools you, and then proves that the trick was actually entirely in your head.

    While entertaining as a magic show, I found the talk to be uninformative and rather disappointing for TED talk.

    Just in case it wasn’t obvious.
    The trick in illusion that one assistant feels when the other is touched is as follows. The magician first touches the blindfolded assistant without audience or other assistant noticing it. The fact that the assistants are touched few seconds apart doesn’t matter, because the blindfolded one doesn’t know when the other one is touched.

    I’m not sure about the synchronized arm up and down trick, but that may work because the “hypnotized” assistant is expecting a sensation and when actual sensation doesn’t come his brain develops one.

    The breaking coke bottle might be just physics, but the blindfolded driving and spike under one cup tricks are so impressive it would probably be disappointing to know how they are done.

  20. I agree, Derren Brown is like this guy, except about three times more adept, informative and skilled. Some of the ‘illusions’ he has done for Channel 4 have been truly brilliant – real showmanship coupled with depth.

    Check out the video where he manages to come out on top in a simultaneous game against a group of chess Grandmasters and Masters. Or, as someone else pointed out above, the Something Wicked This Way Comes live show, which I also enjoyed a lot.

  21. My guess is he can’t see through the blindfold because it isn’t over his eyes while the (somewhat transparent) hood is on. His words are literally true.

  22. This was fun. But I have to agree with some of the commenters, that this was a dubious choice for a whole 15 min segment at TED. The best part imo is that at the end, if you’re paying close attention, the guy says he thinks the spike is under his right hand, so thats the hand Keith slams down! And then he says “good choice” haha!

  23. I watched it again.

    He moves twists his hand when the camera is turned away on the first trick. It isn’t real magic if you use camera tricks.

    Secondly, he only ever has then man examine the wood block with the spike in it. Meaning that they could easily be different weights, something he can quickly check when he moves them last. or the spike could be tall enough that it touches the bottom of the cup and can be felt or seen when any pressure is applied to the cup.

    None the less, TED does do entertainment, but I think most people are getting his trick. He lies, and that is the source of the magic. he can see through the hood, his hand rotates out of camera, he has set up something with the man, and he can feel the difference between the pieces of wood.


  24. While I agree that a magician’s job is not to explain their tricks, the point of a TED talk is to explain something. I kept expecting a conclusion that drew upon cognitive or neurological psychology that would teach us something about ourselves. But… nada. The tricks were good, but about the same quality as can be seen on most tv magic specials.

  25. I think the audience would enjoy it after so many of the more hardcore talks. It’s a good breather. And if it makes some of the world’s best minds think so why not?

  26. #25 palindromic:

    it’s on the right hand side of your screen, but it is indeed the volunteer’s left hand.

  27. I don’t know how the spike trick works,
    but neither do a lot of magicians.

    Have a look at these other attempts:
    (if you’re not squeamish)

    Maybe it only works 25% of the time.

  28. “If you want to see something truly impressive and VASTLY more enlightening, try Darren Brown. Not only does he fool you, but he actually then goes and shows you HOW he fooled you and why you are a dumb sucker. Unlike this guy, he makes the assertion that you can be fooled, fools you, and then proves that the trick was actually entirely in your head.”
    If you think he’s told you how he did it, he fooled you twice mate. Sometimes he does tell you how he does things, but usually only to make you think he did something more impressive using similar methods.

  29. The bottle is prestressed glass. It’s cooled in such a way that it can take a lot more pressure from the outside (you can literally hammer nails into wood with it), but extremely frail from the inside, so that it shatters easily.

    Don’t forget the ‘E’ in TED. It’s also about great performances.

  30. #17


    I can’t say I’m too impressed with any of the tricks aside from the coke bottle. I remember seeing Paul Daniels perform the blindfolded joyride many years ago. I always assumed that he’d memorised the route beforehand.

  31. Enough with the Derren Brown stuff. Ok ok we know hes another Euro magician who’d never make in Vegas
    Although he is rather “influential” his bit on counting buttons is some of the worst acts Ive witnessed.

  32. To those complaining that there was nothing educational in the video, have a look at some of the other TED attendees. Musical performances are common – are you going to complain about them, too?

  33. Yeah, he’s not great. His tricks work but only barely, enough that you can see how they work.

    I’ve seen that last trick go wrong many times, too, and I question the morality of a magician risking the innocent audience member’s hand instead of his own.

  34. How could he possibly have driven the car blind? Wow that’s soooooooo hard to work out. Man.
    Oh wait, what about that bloody great video camera you can see that’s pointing at the road? Do you think that sent pictures somewhere? Gee. What then? Confusing still?
    Maybe someone was watching those pictures live and directed him via an earpiece. Wow. Magic. And now you ask yourself how did I fail to notice the significance of the camera when I was looking right at it?

    As previously noted, the coke bottle gag is just straight physics. The levitating hand is pressure on his foot, which is why the table is covered with a black cloth. The invisible touch happens 5 seconds earlier than the show pretend touch on the other person. Looking away from where the spike is hidden he can still see enough. Covering his eyes with the blindfold he can still see enough so that he knows exactly where the spike is. By the way he holds his victim’s hand he can non-verbally communicate the correct answer.

    Way way ordinary stuff here. As for Derren Brown. Sure he’s a better showman at times, but most of his so called ‘explanations’ are as much misdirection as the rest of his act.

    How much did you like this guy’s delivery? I thought it was fine but not outstanding.

  35. Very impressive. The only one I got right away was his first trick with his hands together. The answer lies with what he does at the 1:00 mark.

  36. I thought it was an adequately educational demo.

    mgabrysSF @6, if you’re going to dive into one of the Seven Deady Sins, pick one like Lust or Avarice so you’ll at least have some fun. Envy’s a stone downer.

  37. Re Harry8 on Derren Brown

    Yup. I watched a few of his instructional vids for magicians, and he is pretty up front with that.

    The hypnosis/NLP stuff is there to provide a plausible explanation to keep the real trick obscured and to reinforce his stage persona.

    Just about all of his tricks actually work through prearranged circumstances. Situations that seem to be random or offer a lot of options, but in reality do not.

    1. If you watch that scene again you notice that he puts on a different blindfold. I you pause at the second he puts on the blindfold you can see that inside the blindfold is a little moniter that is hooked up to the camera on the back of the car.He
      can see the road infront of him perfectly!!! :l

  38. One must remember that they aren’t “doing” anything impossible. They are tricking you into viewing things in a certain way and/or focussing on the wrong things. Sadly it took 41 of us to even begin to figure out the car trick. I figured it out as soon as he put the hood on. It was the camera. (They even had a road view cam) Probably not an ear piece though with practice that could be done but would be unsafe to deal with delayed reaction time at those speeds (though magicians practice). He put on a blindfold people, then the hood. You were set up because she had both also. He was just watching very small TV goggles and sold his “I’m only using my sensing” by swerving here and there and other comments. She was safe the entire time but gave great, real reactions! That’s my guess.

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