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Smart Magic

In this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, Teller, the silent (and I suspect more intelligent) half of the comedy magic team Penn and Teller, talks about the magicians art and how their work relates to cognitive science.

Magic is an art, as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry. But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception: Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists–well intentioned as they are–are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries. MRI machines are awesome, but if you want to learn the psychology of magic, you’re better off with Cub Scouts and hard candy.

You’ll need to read the article to understand the Cub Scouts and hard candy reference, but it’s worth the time just to learn the process behind a card trick you’ve probably seen done.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Penn and Teller and their type of magic act for decades. Unlike many magicians who are far too pretentious (about their “magic” and themselves), their performances not only make great use of humor but in them they work very hard to bring the audience in on the secrets.

And I can testify that Teller speaks, and does so very eloquently, after attending a packed presentation he and Penn did at the Smithsonian many years ago.* One that was very entertaining without any tricks.

In the same category of magicians – smart, funny, and respectful of the audience – if you never seen Ricky Jay perform, go find his excellent HBO special from the 80’s, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants“, on YouTube.

So how does all this magic stuff connect to education, our usual theme in this space?

Sorry. When it comes to linking the two, I got nothin’.

* I remember that the first time Teller said anything during the session the audience gave him a long ovation.


  1. Ruth

    Well I’ve got somethin’!
    I used to bring environmental education programs to schools in a seven-county area. In that capacity I had the opportunity to go to a lot of different schools, observe a lot of different teaching styles, and experience a variety of school cultures.
    In one of my favorite schools, one of the fourth or fifth grade teachers taught a lot of math and science through magic. The kids learned the tricks; learned the math and science behind the tricks; and performed the tricks for other classes. In other words, magic became the conduit for project-based learning at its finest–and I’ll be that those students remembered those concepts!

  2. Karen M. Beran

    I read once that teachers prepare their students for a future they themselves may never see. We cannot do that by living in the past. Therefore I am striving to update my technology skills. Even though somedays it is frustrating. We need to live in the present to prepare for the future.

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