Misdirection

This evening, as part of the Rubin Museum’s excellent Brainwave series of talks, I had the pleasure to hear an on-stage conversation between neuroscientist Tony Ro and master illusionist Prakash Puru. The general topic was why stage magic is so effective, which clearly relates to the way our human brain works, and therefore to neuroscience.

Mr. Puru said many fascinating things about how stage magic works, some of which I found to be very profound in their implications. He showed how easy it is to direct peoples’ attention, even when they know you are doing it.

These techniques of misdirection, if done well, are so effective that when the magician finally switches the card, or pockets the coin, or bends the spoon, nobody in the audience is looking. And it seems that the magician’s patter adds to this distraction in very specific ways.

For example, magicians will often tell jokes during their act. He pointed out that while you are laughing, you are not really paying attention to things. During a good laugh, he said, a magician can pull a switch, and nobody will notice.

Then Mr. Puru added another thought, one very topical. “For example,” he said, “I cannot think of election where the funnier candidate lost.”

I realized he was right. And that realization brought me back to the real world.

Some very unfunny things are happening in my country now. They will get even less funny when our Joker in Chief manages to pull our world into a tragic and devastating war, simply because reality is not part of his magic act.

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