Why I Perform Magic

This essay answers the question of why I do what I’ve been doing for my entire life.

At the start of every show, I always have faith that the wave of applause will drown out any feelings of doubt. As I see the crowd focus on me, I get a rush of energy and a smile overtakes my face. “Thank you for having me! To get started, I need a volunteer from the audience?”

I see several hands in the air. I point to a woman in the back, “You, ma’am. Please come on up.” She sheepishly walks up to the stage. “Thank you for volunteering. What’s your name?” I hand her the microphone and she lets us know her name is Farrah. “Farrah, we’re going to do a card trick. But first, examine this deck and tell me if you notice anything unusual.” I hand her the playing cards. After a few seconds, she declares everything seems normal and hands them back. I flippantly fan out the deck in front of her. “I want you to select a card, and I’ll guess it.” I observe intently as she pulls a card from the middle.

“Actually, I’m feeling a little brave today. How about you take four more cards?” The crowd chuckles and she takes four extra cards. I close the deck and begin smirking. “You know, I’m feeling really confident today. Pick one of those five cards in your mind and concentrate on it.” Again, for a brief couple seconds, I watch her eyes, hands, and cards intently. She lets me know she’s decided.

I pause for a moment in silence. “Alright, I think I figured it out. Do you have the four of hearts?” She smiles in surprise and says yes. “Please show the audience.” She turns the card around to the audience who begins lightly clapping. “Ok, what about the king of spades?” This continues to ever increasing applause until we get to the last card. “OK, the last card is the one you were thinking of in your mind, right?” Farrah is so shocked she can only smile and nod her head as the crowd breaks out in laughter. “Was it the ten of diamonds?” She pauses in shock and turns the card around to reveal the ten of diamonds. This trick relies on human psychology, perfect memory, and a fast eye. When Farrah checks the deck, I know the social pressure of being on stage will prevent her from shuffling the deck I memorized. When I fan out the cards, I make it look mindless. Yet, I practiced for months to create a predictable pattern. As soon as she places a finger on a card, I already know which one it is. Throughout the process, my memory and observation make the cards effectively transparent. When I ask her to pick a card in her mind, her subtle eye movements are enough to see what card she is paying attention to. This betrays the memorized card’s identity.

Being a magician exemplifies everything I care about. I care about pushing myself. I know even a trick that seems impossible can be mastered with enough research and practice. I care about seeing the big picture. Combining mathematics and cognitive science is critical to creating experiences that are more than a compilation of sleight-of-hand. Finally, I care about questioning assumptions. It’s natural to view one’s mind as a reliable source of information, private from reality, but my mind-reading tricks fight this basic belief. Above all else, I believe what makes magic important is its ability to open minds. Understanding the limits of one’s mind is essential to make rational decisions. No matter what I do with my life, I want to foster open thought. Open thought is the magic that has defined humanity’s success, and I believe it is the key to our future.

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