The neuroscience of magic

Writing in Smithsonian magazine, magician Teller describes the neuroscience that underpins magical illusions, using admirably clear language to describe some of the weirdest ways that our brains can be made to fool us.

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.

Teller Reveals His Secrets


  1. I once saw a video of someone showing tricks like that and explaining how they work, especially the coin stuff and the “miser’s dream”. Part of that involved a metal tub that coins get tossed into, making a noise that could then be produced on its own to fool the audience into thinking more coins are getting tossed in. I wish I could find that video again, and I think the main reason I can’t is it’s not Penn & Teller doing it and I can’t remember who it was.

      1.  Teller mind trick.
        Teller: ‘You cannot see any videos that reveal my magic tricks.’
        You: ‘I cannot see any videos that reveal your magic tricks. Move along.’

  2. The father of one of my son’s classmates is a professional magician in San Francisco and makes a quite comfortable living at it.  I once had him show a simple coin trick to my son (one I can pull off technically, but without any grace or charm) and stood behind him to see what he was doing and even though I knew what he was about to do and when, I still followed the wrong hand every single time.  The psychology of it all is deeply imbedded in the human brain.

  3. I love Penn & Teller on Letterman.  My favorite appearance involved a rabbit and a woodchipper… the ending is amazing, but the ending after the ending was even better.

    Fantastic article.  The most significant point to me was “If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.”  I have been reading more on this very point in a wonderful book about game design by Jesse Schell.

  4. Hearing Teller speak in the lobby of the theater after a P&T show in Vegas is one of the highlights of my life.

    1.  I saw them live in Hartford once and Teller actually sang during the show.  He wasn’t on-stage at the time so I guess it doesn’t count. 

    2.  For myself as well! I had no idea that they meet with the audience after every show. And they stayed until every last person who wanted to had chatted and taken pictures/gotten autographs.

  5. For me, the most impressive is:
    “7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets.”

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