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What is this wizardry?
April 28, 2014 11:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious how a particular flavour of magic trick is done. A participant who seems unlikely to be a stooge (eg a noted celebrity) is invited to draw or think of something, from an almost unlimited set of options, and the mentalist successfully picks what they've come up with. Here's an example. Here's Derren Brown doing even more impressive versions of the trick with David Frost and Iain M Banks.. The "it's just advanced psychology" explanation is misdirection, so what's the real answer?
posted by dontjumplarry to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, I didn't mean to suggest that these were variations on the same trick. They are clearly 3 different tricks with different explanations, though the overall effect is similar.
posted by dontjumplarry at 11:35 PM on April 28

It's not so much "advanced psychology" as it is Twenty Questions. Especially in the Frost session, you can see him go down incorrect lines, backpedal, and gradually work out the real answer by process of elimination. It's pretty much the same trick as used by the Akinator, only with the questions more disguised and the feedback through a combination of body language and leading answers.
posted by fifthrider at 11:53 PM on April 28

In the third one, note that Iain Banks is not making much of the choosing. For example, he asks him to pick one row of books, but it is not clear beforehand if this is the row to keep or the row to take away. Of course it becomes more complicated later, and I do not expect he was leading him to a specific page, but this kind of open-ended asking can be manipulated if no rules are set. He did not even say he was going for a specific word, and "pop" is a pretty simple string of letters - he could claim to discover it as first letters in subsequent lines, or last letters of alternating words or whatever.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:55 PM on April 28

Not to mention that he picked a word from the most brightly colored book in the row he kept, placed that book at the center, bridged the book open to the same page he wanted Banks to find, and slipped the word "pop" into his patter at a couple of points. He's using a combination of various forces and scams to do the trick, but you can catch more than a few of them quite easily as a careful observer.
posted by fifthrider at 12:03 AM on April 29

On re-watching - as fifthrider says:

* He changes the order of the books to put the one he wants in the middle.

* He actually says the word as he is asking Banks to pick a book.

* He casually fans the book but then cracks the spine, it is not impossible that he's chosen a specific place.

* He points with his finger up and down the page, he probably pointed out the approximate part of the page in some way (e.g. start or end there)

* He lets Banks to read out loud but tells him where to stop - probably waiting for the pop, but lucked out and got it in the first sentence.

* Finally asks for a word that "jumps out"
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:06 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

These clips are presented as harmless parlor tricks, but there are and have been those practitioners who claim actual psychic powers and use popular amazement to advance their careers through what is basically fraud. James "the Amazing" Randi is a magician/scientist who exposed several of these during the 1970s and 1980s, notably Uri Geller, including his use of the mind reading gag.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 AM on April 29

I think one of the recent YouTube commenters may be on to something in the one with Iain Banks. Observe how much whiskey is in the bottle at 0:12, when the performer is holding up the word on the pad. Then observe it later at 1:36 and other points during the trick. You can debate with yourself whether a camera angle is responsible for the content of the bottle seeming to be less earlier in the video than it is later, but there are other suspicious edits being made. Going back to the 0:12 mark, you can see Banks's glass move between cuts as he signs it. The glass eventually winds up in the place where it is at 0:12, but only after Banks signs the paper. Maybe it moved there twice, but we're not shown that. There could be a more interesting trick than video editing in there somewhere, but what we're shown is something edited to the point where I don't think we can see it the way Banks did.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:42 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

For example, he asks him to pick one row of books, but it is not clear beforehand if this is the row to keep or the row to take away.

But actually, it is. Brown does say something like 'which row do you want to keep'...and then double-checks with Banks after he picks a row (something like 'so you want to keep this one or discard it?').

I've seen the card-trick version, where the trickster says 'Pick a row', without saying whether the patsy is picking the row to be kept or the one to be discarded. This doesn't seem to be that.

There are way too many chances for Banks to end up with a word other than 'pop' for this to be purely a matter of Brown subtly manipulating his choices, surely...?
posted by Salamander at 12:48 AM on April 29

One of Derren Brown's tricks was telling someone at a horse race which horse to bet on, and getting it right, and doing it again, and again, and again. In reality he tried the trick tens of times with different people and only showed on TV the one time that he got it right every time to give the illusion that he got it right first time. So maybe he films this trick with a bunch of celebrities and gets it wrong or not quite perfect almost all the times, and only shows the one time that he pulls it off.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:18 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]

Yeah, on re-watching, there's further evidence of discontinuity between 'pop' being shown on the pad and Banks signing the back of it: the book in front moves several inches. It is corner-to-corner with the second book (The Algebraist) as Banks signs the pad, but the corners are quite far from touching in the earlier frames. That's nothing in itself, but if the 'magically refilling whiskey bottle' observation reflects the video being shown out of order, that means the books would have to have been placed on the table again, and you'd expect some variation in their arrangement. And that's exactly what you see. Harmless continuity errors and innocent re-staging aren't excluded--maybe this is all irrelevant and the trick played out flawlessly in real life--but I doubt it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:54 AM on April 29

Hmm. I have no idea. But I doubt it's camera trickery or anything like that.

A few years ago, I was watching an illusionist at a show in the Edinburgh Festival. I and other people were called to the stage at one point. He gave me a stack of four or five books, said pick any book; go to any page; pick a line; and pick any word. The word I randomly picked was 'jackrabbit' - I thought he'd never get it. But he stared at me, made me take my glasses off and told me to picture the word in my mind.

He got it no trouble at all. Still baffles me.
posted by ComfySofa at 2:19 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]

What I think the editing shows is that the trick was performed with Banks multiple times, but the stakes each time were pretty low. The pad probably had many words written on different pages. The performer considered the books Bank picked and nudged him toward particular words each time. At least once, the trick worked (so Banks wasn't complicit--he just saw a relatively simple trick). And in a later take, the performer showed 'pop' on the pad first, giving the appearance of having made a better prediction than he really had. That makes all points made in this thread relevant: the forces/scam techniques, the use of multiple takes, and the use of editing all add up to a bigger trick.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:37 AM on April 29

Multiple takes and editing seem like a stretch to explain the Iain Banks example. But even if that's the secret there, they don't seem to explain the other tricks here, including ComfySofa's puzzling example.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:46 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

In both the other examples, the performers actually claim to be reading muscle movements associated with subvocalization--a neat skill, if it exists. However, in the Frost video, he gets the trick substantially wrong, and I think in the Banks example he has cheated to improve the presentation to avoid such a bad outcome, though I suspect he did execute the trick in a fashion that requires considerable skill.

ComfySofa's example could be in the same genre as the subvocalization readings, but it may have been executed with verbal cues / prompts to pick one among a planned set of words or pages, with props like a book that actually only has ten different pages, or (if I'm reading the sequence of events correctly) with tricks like selecting people with glasses and standing them in such a way that a reflection provides a clue to the text before asking them to focus.

The wine bottle example is really the one most comparable to the Banks example, and aside from the obvious fact that the performer flat out says to draw a 'simple object,' my guesses about that get pretty exotic. He guessed incorrectly that the airplane guy had drawn a champagne glass, so I reckon he thinks people usually draw things like that, but I dunno--maybe his magic marker smells like wine. :)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:20 AM on April 29

The generic term for the Banks trick is a "book test" and there are a whole bunch of different forcing techniques and gimmicks used to make sure that you choose the page/word/phrase that the magician wants you too.

For ComfySofa's example, were you allowed to examine the books ahead of time? If not, it's entirely possible you got handed a stack of identical pages bound into five different bindings, or books that were less obviously gimmicked. And once the magician control the exact content of the page you're looking at it's much easier to get you to pick the right word by suggestion.

One of the things that makes a really good trick good is that it misdirects you as to where the trick actually is. Radiolab did an interesting segment recently about a couple who did tricks like this framed as telepathy. (The husband would get a word or phrase, then he would get on the phone or radio and telepathically "send" it to the wife who was somewhere exotic and far away.) The beauty of the telepathy framing was that those who wanted to discover the trick focused all their energy on figuring out how they could possibly be communicating the phrase or word through their seemingly innocuous conversation. Of course the answer was that they weren't communicating the phrase, the husband was just using various forcing techniques to make sure that the phrase was the one he had given to his wife earlier.
posted by firechicago at 5:32 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]

I didn't get to examine the books in advance, no. But I could flick through them all before I made my choice. They were bog standard paperbacks. Or at least, if they weren't, they were incredibly convincing props.

There clearly was a trick to it, I just don't know what it was. And it was a few years ago, so my memory is fuzzy. I can't even remember the chap's name.
posted by ComfySofa at 7:24 AM on April 29

These types of tricks were explained in an interesting book called, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, by Stephen L. Macknik et al. (the Kindle edition is only $8.89 on Amazon right now). I don't remember the explanations, but the authors outlined them in some detail.
posted by alex1965 at 7:35 AM on April 29

I've seen this sort of trick done live. I see no reason to believe that multiple takes were done with creative editing to get the right result (that's what David Blaine does). A magician friend of mine said the hard part is the magician's patter, so that you don't realize that you are being led down the garden path (an example that I recall, the magician said something like "Pick any word on the page. A nice long world, something unusual". What people remember is that they picked any word they felt like. What actually happened is that they looked for a long word, probably the first long word on the page, and thought that they were picking whatever word they felt like).

The book choice is forced, as is the page. I'm not sure how the sentences were forced, but there is probably some good psychology at work here (something like 95% of the people, if asked to pick a sentence, will find the first complete paragraph on the left page and read the second sentence).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:36 AM on April 29

Lots of good answers here. Allow me to pile on by rambling a bit.

I started learning magic at 9, and spent countless hours studying, practicing, and performing (as a side-job) from my early teens into my 30s. Although I haven't performed in a long time, I have remained keenly interested in magic in an armchair capacity.

There are many methods to both force a choice, and get non-forced info after it is indeed freely selected. Back when I regularly performed, mentalism was my favorite branch. It would be impossible to enumerate every method used, and it's generally difficult to ascertain a specific method based on someone's description, because the memory of what happened is usually inaccurate, by the magician's design.

One example of the memory problem: I used to perform the "key bending" effect ala Uri Geller quite often. I would tell the subject to hold their keys in their hand and "don't let me touch them." I would then have them concentrate with me, and "will the keys to bend." Insert dramatic byplay here. They open their hand, and a key is bent! I've actually had people drop or throw their keychain in shock when they see the bent key. In retelling the story, they would always be sure to say that I never touched the keys. Which is not accurate. Of course I can't bend a key without touching it. What actually happened was, I would take their keychain and in the process of "moving so people can see better" or some other ruse, bend a key without anyone seeing. (Hard to explain how, but it can be done.) I would then place the keychain in their hand and say "don't let me touch them!" Too late. The rest is showmanship.

The point being, yes they are all tricks. This makes them no less entertaining.

Here a few methods for the kinds of tricks you describe:

A force makes you think you are freely choosing a book, word, etc, but in fact are not. The OP is correct that the performer saying it's "advanced psychology" is just window dressing and misdirection. The actual method is usually pretty simple, which is what makes it so clever. Forces can be mathematical, or by use of gimmicked books or other objects. In the end, the subject remembers having a free choice, so that's all that matters. A mathematical method ("Think of a number, multiply by this other number, then open to that page" etc.) is actually producing a (supposedly) random result, which subjects mis-remember as being a free choice. It's actually neither random nor free.

Another method is discovery; which is finding out a legitimately chosen word or drawing only after the fact. "Impression boards" have been around for a long time. In the old days, carbon paper would leave a copy of whatever was drawn or written using a special clipboard or notepad. Once the original drawing was sealed up, the clipboard could be taken offstage by assistant, who dutifully noted the what was written and passed the info to the performer. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how a modern version of this using wifi and remote whiteboard software can be used to create stunning effects. An assistant no longer has to take the clipboard (or notepad) backstage. They can see the drawing in real time, and relay a description to the performer via an earpiece or many other methods. Now, instead of convincing an audience that he not using "wires or mirrors," a performer has to convince us he is not using an iPad.

Sometimes the performer draws his "guess" only after the subject reveals his target drawing. This is ballsy but was one of my favorite tricks. I would have a subject make a simple drawing and seal it in an envelope out of my sight. I would then make a drawing on my notepad. Actually, I drew nothing. Once the subject revealed his drawing, I would look at my notepad, looking a little disappointed, and start explaining what impressions I got, and how my drawing wasn't really exact, but but hopefully close enough. After all, "missing" it by a little just proves it's not a trick, right? As I was explaining this, I would hold my notepad at my side, and would be secretly making my drawing using a small "nail writer" embedded under my thumbnail. It truly looks miraculous when done correctly. And yes, it takes lots of practice and subtle psychology and misdirection to do correctly.

A switch can also be used, on both sides of the table. A spectator's freely chosen but unseen card can be switched for a pre-selected one. Or the magician's own "prediction" of an event or selection can be secretly switched after the results are known. (This effect is usually marketed as a "prediction chest.")

These are just a few of countless methods, wich can be mixed and matched as needed. I don't pretend to know every method, and new ones are being devised every day. But the basic principles are the same. No one can really read minds, so magicians have to either force or discover the information, then use misdirection, showmanship, acting, psychology, and humor to "sell" the effect.

One more thing: People often mistakenly think of misdirection as making you look in the wrong place, but it's much more than that. It's making you think the wrong things at the wrong time. ANY TIME a magician seems to be doing something that is a throw-away, unimportant part of the procedure, THAT'S when he's doing something sneaky. By the time he's saying "Watch this!" it's too late.
posted by The Deej at 11:34 AM on April 29 [16 favorites]

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