What Magicians Can Teach Us About How Our Brains Work

Take away the cards, confetti, and fireworks, and magic tricks leave us with clues about how our minds solve problems.

What Magicians Can Teach Us About How Our Brains Work
[Image: Flickr user Pablo]

How do you make something disappear into thin air?


David Copperfield famously made the Statue of Liberty vanish, but even the most elementary of magicians can make a scarf disappear in their hands. It’s the stuff magicians make a career out of.

But studying magic isn’t just for the Houdini-wannabes of the world. “You could learn so much about the human mind through magic,” says Alex Stone, author of the book Fooling Houdini. “Creativity is about questioning assumptions. … Every kind of creative endeavor is a sort of magic trick.”

Stone, who has been obsessed with magic since he got his first magic kit at the age of five, believes studying magic is like a crash course in applied neuropsychology, teaching us how and why our brains work the way they do.

Here are five lessons creative professionals or anyone working to find a solution to a problem can take away from the best magicians:

We often don’t see what’s right in front of us.

Try to solve a magic trick and you might find yourself spinning all sorts of elaborate theories, when the answer is actually far more straightforward. “Often the solution is so simple, it’s right in front of your face,” says Stone. “That’s often what we don’t see.”

Take for example the thumb tip, a fake shell of a finger that you wear over your thumb to conceal objects and make them seemingly appear and disappear out of thin air. The thumb tip is a basic and popular magic tool that can be used in countless ways. “Magic shows us that there is often a simple elegant solution to a problem and we often try to make things more complex than they really are.”


Try pairing the unexpected.

Magic is about making meaningful, yet surprising connections. “The ideas that support magic are really about connecting things you wouldn’t expect to be connected or decoupling two things,” says Stone. “You’re creatively reconstructing something in a different way.”

Go backwards and you might find an answer.

We often use deductive reasoning to arrive at a solution–trying to stack up the facts we can get our hands on to arrive at a solution. But magicians often work backwards, starting with their solution and working in reverse from there. “There’s a way of thinking, which is reverse engineering the solution to a problem,” says Stone. “It’s sort of like an inductive logic. How would you go about reproducing this scenario from scratch? It’s like solving a mystery by going backwards.”

Don’t just solve a problem. Tell a story.

The best magicians don’t just do tricks, they build a story around each one. In 1983, when Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear, for example, he built a story around the trick using a radar screen, flashing searchlights and a helicopter that circled overhead to add to the storyline of his trick. “The best tricks have to tell a kind of story,” says Stone. “They have a kind of elegance to them.”

Use old tricks in new ways.

The humble thumb tip? It can be used to make a scarf appear out of thin air. It can make objects look like they’re levitating when paired with a suction cup. It can be used to help you catch a flame by sticking a small fuel-soaked wick at its tip.

“The creativity comes in figuring out cool ways to take this fake thumb and use it in new ways,” says Stone. “Really good magicians have this wonderful way of looking at all the tools and using them in new ways. That’s the essence of creativity.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction