Mind Games

07.18.12

What’s Magic? The Science of the Mind and Trickery in ‘Fooling Houdini’

Amateur magician Alex Stone outraged his peers when he shared trade secrets in a piece for Harper’s. Now he has a whole book. By Kevin Canfield.

Alex Stone was smitten with magic. Years later, he’s still crowing about the time David Copperfield came to town, in San Antonio. “He walked through walls, levitated, vanished astride his roaring Harley, only to appear, seconds later, at the very rear of the theater, proud in his snug leather pants.” As he recalls in his affable new book, Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, Stone got a chance to say hello to the famed magician after the show, but “the only words that came out were ‘Can I touch you?’”

It’s this earnest fandom that made Stone want to get to the bottom of what magic is, and which, he explains, has affected his love life, his studies, and his career. He became a magician himself, but some fellow sorcerers were outraged when Stone shared trade secrets in a long piece he wrote for the July 2008 issue of Harper’s.

Stone practices what’s known as “close-up magic”—he does tricks with coins, cards, and the like. As the book opens, he has taken his skills to Stockholm, where he’s competing in the World Championships of Magic. Clumsy and anxious, he bombs. The audience greets his performance with “withering laughter,” and the experience scars him to the point that he’s ready to quit the game for good. Add to this a painful breakup with his girlfriend and you have one seriously sad magician.

Gradually, he gets back on the beam, and soon he’s spending all of his downtime hanging out with magicians, and Stone encounters the kind of characters you’d find in a Tom Waits song. In one chapter, he introduces the reader to a legally blind cardsharp who named his son Asa Spades; in another Stone writes about an elderly but still combative “sleight-of-hand master” who might be “the greatest underground magician alive.” There’s also a journey to a Las Vegas magic academy, where, Stone recalls, he and his fellow students gathered around a fire, recited a pledge and were then escorted to a “kitchen, where on a small side table an offering of Little Debbie snacks awaited us.” How fine it is to call it “an offering,” and Stone’s descriptions of his personal journey through these strange rituals contribute to a solid, if not overly insightful, memoir.

But what differentiates Fooling Houdini is Stone’s determination to understand the science behind his craft. “Magic, at its core, is about toying with the limits of perception,” Stone writes. “And as any neuroscientist will tell you, one can learn a lot about the brain by studying those bizarre moments wherein it succumbs to illusion. Magic lives in these moments.” As an amateur magician who also happens to have a master's degree in physics, he’s better qualified than most to make sense of the mind’s susceptibility to the kind of tricks and misdirections that magicians have plied for centuries. In this sense, the book is an investigation, one that takes him to the research universities and labs that are the front lines in the hunt for new insights into the human mind.

Arien Mack studies “inattentional blindness,” or the brain’s failure to process new information when it’s distracted.

At the New School, for instance, he meets up with groundbreaking psychology professor Arien Mack. She studies “inattentional blindness,” or the brain’s failure to process new information when it’s distracted, which helps him understand and explain what’s at play when a magician—or a Three-card Monte dealer—pulls a sleight-of-hand trick. A trip to Barnard, meanwhile, leads to a chat with an old Bell Labs mathematician, and a breakthrough in Stone’s understanding of an age-old card trick, too thrilling to reveal here.

Finally, Stone also offers practical advice—but beware. “So how exactly do you remove a person’s watch without their noticing? It’s easier than you might think,” he writes. “The simplest watches to steal are the one fitted with buckles—the kind with a tongue and a single prong—which works more or less like a belt.” He spends about five pages on the subject—more than enough to set a budding magician on the path to stardom.

Or prison.