Author claims knowing the secrets to magic tricks actually deepens the mystery

Alex Stone is the author of a new book called "Fooling Houdini," about magic, psychology, and perception, in which he reveals how many illusions are achieved. In fact, last week in the Wall Street Journal he explained how to steal a watch. Of course, this flies in the face of the traditional magician's code of silence about how tricks are done. Stone disagrees with the code, claiming that "Magic is a science as well as an art, and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery. Each new find opens vistas on an unchartered territory at the edge of human understanding. Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless stream of unknowns.” I get that, but I still prefer the wonderment. Anyway, Maria Konnikova's Scientific American column further explores Stone's idea:

 Literally-Psyched Files 2012 06 Fooling-Houdini-221X300

Take something as seemingly unrelated as fiction—or any writing, for that matter. Read all the books you will on the craft of writing, comb through as many interviews as you can with your favorite writers, collect as many ‘how to write a bestseller’s as you can get your hands on, and still, the writing you admire will not lose its magic or its grip on your imagination. Even knowing the entire plot, that surprise ending or that give-away spoiler—arguably the closest approximation to finding out the trick of a magic act—is unlikely to limit your enjoyment in any way. In fact, it might even make the process of reading more enjoyable.

In a 2011 study, psychologists from UC San Diego found that individuals who had seen a spoiler paragraph prior to reading a short story rated the story as more, not less, pleasurable. And that held true even of stories where the plot, the “trick” so to speak, was seemingly the center of the experience, such as one of Roald Dahl’s signature ironic twist tales or an Agatha Christie mystery.

Why? When we know the plot, the twist, the surprise, we become more able to focus on everything else: language, character, the intricacies of rhythm and technique.

"How to fool Houdini–and avoid fooling yourself" (SciAm)

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone (Amazon)


  1. Perhaps this argues against the common 19th-century diss of science by poets like Keats and Poe — that science destroys the beauty of the natural world by “unweaving the rainbow”.

    1. This is, however, in agreement with Hitchcock who always created suspense by having his spectators know more than the characters.

      1. Some comedians tell you what the joke is going to be before they tell the joke and use the anticipation to build up to a bigger laugh.

    2.  This is the argument against that nonsense.  I’d expand on that, but Asimov did it better first.

      Speaking personally, I never truly loved magic as a child until I started learning how to do it myself.  (And the best version of the Cups and Balls ever performed, beyond question, is the version Teller does… using transparent plastic cups.)

  2. This seems to follow in Penn & Teller’s reasoning. They started explaining their magic tricks, and found that the audience enjoyed them even more!

    1. Penn and Teller are brilliant in this way. My personal favorites are illusions where the magician explains exactly how the trick is done as it’s being done, and then still fools you with one extra bit of misdirection thrown in. Or rather, the explanation of the trick BECOMES the misdirection.

    2. Penn & Teller actually guard their methods very carefully. For instance, their bullet catch, or with Teller’s Shadows.

      In the case of most of the effects they do reveal, they have created the effect specifically to be revealed. Such as in the case of Blast Off –

      Teller on their “revealing” of Cups and Balls:

      “(Another magician) was angry that we were exposing the cups and balls,” said Teller,
      “so we had a friend of ours go into our lobby at intermission and perform the cups and balls in the normal fashion. The audience was completely baffled, even though they had just seen our exposé of it. So, when we expose something, it’s something we’ve invented and in no way hampers anyone else from performing a trick.”

  3. Awesome sauce. I was just complaining to a friend how, in this day and age of information being so readily available with just a few keystrokes, magic trick spoilers are still tough to find.

    If you want to be awed, fine – don’t read the explanations, but I’d personally rather have understanding than amazement.

  4. I am buying this book! I love this stuff.
    Also, the linked article in the WSJ on how to steal a watch was entertaining too. Though, if you read the comments on that article, it’s pretty clear that it’s Obama’s fault that watches are stolen at all, ever.

  5. I’m midway between the two positions.  I write puzzles (of the crossword variety, rather than the sudoku variety.)  Puzzles are like magic tricks in that they appear initially totally baffling, but the commonly-argued difference is that the setter of a puzzle needs to have it solved; otherwise they have failed.  But the solution must not be trivial, or there is no enjoyment to be derived from it.  (And the solution must also be “fair”, but that’s a different issue.)
    The pleasure in both puzzles and illusions is in the “disguise” that it is presented using.There are, after all, only a limited number of types of illusion, and the mechanics of them are drawn from a relatively small pool.  When you understand the principle behind a trick, your appreciation of the trick changes, from one of wonderment at how it was done, to one of wonderment at how easily you were fooled in the first place or how clever the disguise was.  Knowing how it was done before you see it, however, may mean that you are deprived of that first type – even though the second type may well still provide considerable pleasure.

  6. I have not read this book but I have seen some explanations of magic tricks where there is a scientific mystery that even the magician does not know. What they really know is how to exploit it.

    There was one topic of how the brain constructs a complete picture for the brain based on only partial imagery. They mused that it might have been created to protect us from quick animals, such as snakes, back in the day.

    This image reconstruction technique was used to cause the viewer to miss an obvious hand movement. It was not misdirection driven and it happened right in front of you (the audience as well as the screen).

    A book that contained these secrets would be very interesting to read and I do not ultimately believe it takes away from the usage of the trick.

    I mean, it is not like finding out that David C. moved the stage to make the Statue Of Liberty disappear.

  7. “…individuals who had seen a spoiler paragraph prior to reading a short story rated the story as more, not less, pleasurable.”

    ALL individuals, or just some? I suspect I’d be in the category of individuals who rated the story less pleasurable. But even if I rated it MORE pleasurable, I’d certainly consider the person who revealed the spoiler to be a jackass.

    1. I’d like to see that tested with a movie that the participants were really looking forward to seeing.

      I know that for myself, any time I’ve had a spoiler fall into my lap, I’ve hated it and it has ruined the experience of reading or watching whatever it was.

      1. I can’t imagine that my enjoyment of, say, Sixth Sense or Fight Club would have been much improved.

  8. Those who haven’t earned the right to know the secrets of magic can be cavalier about when and by whom they should be exposed. Watch the faces of an audience in the midst of experiencing absolute wonder at the performance of a fine illusion and know that books like Fooling Houdini steal those types of moments of child-like wonder. There are too few of them left for frauds like Stone to steal them from the rest of us. 

  9. My position in this is as follows – I am a. a magic fan, b. a professional magician c. I design and create magic effects for other performers and d. I have lectured on the relationship between Physics and Magic at Leicester University. (So this is an issue I have pondered at length)

    I think I disagree with Alex Stone’s position: imagine if you are telling a joke and everyone knows the punchline – sure they can appreciate your performance on a ‘deeper level’, focussing on your diction and delivery, but they will be robbed of the impact and surprise that would otherwise have happened. In magic, your lifetime of learning how the world works is the setup and the deception is the punchline that flips it on its head. No secret: no illusion, no punchline: no magic. You are just watching a performance, which is fine, but not magic.

    I enjoy watching magic performances from a technical standpoint because I know how most things are done and I can watch the theatre of the performance and enjoy the reactions of laypeople watching. Once in a while though something will really sink me, leaving me with no explanation, and let me tell you that is a MUCH better experience.

    When you register a powerful illusion (even if it is just a beautiful coin vanish) that really disrupts your perception of the possible there is a physical kinetic impact to it, like going over a humpback bridge at speed. It unseats the control your rational mind has over you – it is the momentary unseating of logic and *by definition* it cannot be improved by rational understanding.

    Just my opinion of course.

  10. Oh good grief – I have an entire shelf of magic books that “explain the secrets”.  If you want to know how tricks are done, Google “magic” and order a couple How-To books.  You know WHY these secrets stay “secret”?  The average person is lazy or just doesn’t care enough to look the stuff up.

    (Which is fine by me – for whatever reason, magic is like crack to me.  I live for that “How did that just happen??!!” moment.)

  11. HAd this discussion with a magician friend of mine, with whome I’d perfromed many tricks onstage (mainly as a distraction) and helped construct some of the props. Yet I still went to many of his shows. He wondered how I could still enjoy it knowing how it was done. I told him it was simply that knowing how you do a trick and still being unable to see you do it- despite knowing what to look for- was amazing. By the same token, all piano players know how great piano players do it. The argument that knowing the trick should keep piano players away but I’ll bet the next symphony headliner in your city has a full quarter of the house- at minimum- are piano players.

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