Visual vs Cerebral Magic

The difference between something seen and something reasoned or thought about is obvious. I can show you, say, two apples and three bananas (five fruits in total) or alternatively ask you to think of ‘2a + 3b = 5f’. One is perception (or a mixture of perception and thought) and the other, purely thought. In magic, however, the differences between visual magic and cerebral – tricks seen and those created in the mind – are not immediately clear, mainly because most tricks are a mixture of the two.

On its most basic level magic operates in the mind. We follow a course of events with our mind, believe something took place and follow false trails, and experience amazement in our mind. A magician tries to emphasise certain things and distract from others, all in our mind.

To keep the following as simple as possible we shall take these basic facts as given. After all, everything we experience in life is all in the mind. Beyond this, an effect usually contains visual and non-visual elements; there may be verbal elements requiring mental processing such as in the classic ‘Thieves and Sheep’ coin trick. Without patter, which we process mentally, this trick is nothing.

The procedure of a trick, especially a complex card trick, may itself require mental thought to process and understand the effect, and patter may be used to help explain the procedure. Any form of effect where mental processing of one kind or another plays a strong role we could call, cerebral.

‘Cerebral’ properly refers to intellectual thought where you have to work out something or follow a train of thought. A movie with a complex plot (The Third Man, The Sting) is cerebral in this sense. However we shall use the term to denote all forms of thought including imagination (mental imagery), again to keep this simple.

‘Cerebral – intellectual, as opposed to practical’ – Chambers Dictionary

Visual magic is that which may be understood without verbal explanation of the plot or procedure, or without complex intellectual reasoning as to what the effect was. A card is buried in the middle of the deck and rises to the top (‘ambitious card’) or visually rises from the middle (‘rising card’).

We all know visual magic: things change, vanish, appear. Cerebral magic is harder to define. Let’s say you watch a performance of ‘Named Card at Any Number’ but without knowing what was said by the performer or spectators. All you would experience is someone dealing down to a card. No actual effect would be experienced. The magic happens in the mentation of the spectators: they have to intellectually understand (a) what happened and (b) its significance (usually clarified by verbal explanation from the performer). The dealing and showing of a card is only half the equation and therefore the overall effect is cerebral.

To take the example further, the classical mental-addition effect many of us learned as children (‘Think of a number between one and ten, take away one, add three, take away two, add four, now take away the number you first thought of – you’re now thinking of four’) is purely cerebral. Nothing visual happens at all.

Examples of cerebral card tricks include:

  • 21-Card Trick
  • As Many As You
  • Gemini Twins
  • Mind Mirror
  • Spelling Trick

To be sure, these all have visual elements and an astute spectator without sound could still follow what takes place in at least three of them. But this appreciation would come about through carefully following procedures and topologies; through cerebral activity or thought.

All magic is cerebral

A coin vanishes in front of your eyes: before even beginning to think, you experience the effect face on, on a purely perceptual level. But then the intellect starts to catch up: you think about what happened, recollect and compare the before and after. When two cards change places, you witness the effect and then compute ‘A is where B was and B is where A was’. So even the simplest and most visual magic uses some form of intellectual processing beyond immediate perception of magic.

But this cerebration occurs as a sort of back-up or double-check that ‘the senses weren’t fooled’, concluding within moments that they were (‘Did I really witness that? I did!’). Cerebral thought then switches to trying to work out how the magic happened.

So in purely visual magic – a chosen card appears inside the screen of a phone and is plucked out of the screen, becoming a real-life playing-card – the effect is clear and obvious; no thought is required to work out what the trick was. A year later they can recall and describe the effect immediately.

What’s going on?

Let’s say you remove a card and table it face down as a prediction, the spectator deals a pile and stops when they like, deals that pile into two piles, the top card of one pile is a Heart and the top card of the other a Seven, thus indicating, according to the magician, a third card – the Seven of Hearts – and the card tabled face down at the start is revealed to be the Seven of Hearts (‘The Spectator Does a Trick’ by Al Leech).

There are lots of things to consider here: the prediction was tabled at the start, the spectator could have stopped dealing any time, the cards arrived at were therefore random and so on.

We are not yet processing these thoughts to work out possible methods; that may come later. We are having these thoughts to work out what the trick was and the significance of the various elements. We may gloss over much of what happened and remember bullet points: ‘I stopped dealing any time, somehow the cards matched – that’s amazing.’

In the above example, the significance of the dealing is not understood by the spectator until after the effect is over; at the time, they are experiencing something seemingly aimless and unknown. The performer does his best to emphasise ‘You can deal one more or one less’ and so on, but nonetheless, they don’t know where the effect is leading. (We do, which is why our subjective view of the effect is biased in its favour.) This means they have to think about it afterwards to really appreciate the effect, even though nominally they will be fooled by their bullet-point perception of the sequence. This is cerebral magic, or at least one form of it.

Surmising vs magic

Someone experiencing this effect without sound (or in a foreign language) must follow even more closely and surmise what happened; but surmising is not experiencing magic in an immediate, perceptual way. We want tricks that work on a near-immediate level (and which also withstand cerebral backtracking or ‘trying to work out how it was done’ afterwards).

So cerebral magic is not just where part of the effect takes place in the mind. It may also be where the procedure of a trick requires thought to work out the significance of certain actions. The performer will use patter to explain and make clear the procedure; this patter may be swallowed whole or mentally compared to the visual evidence; more thought. If an effect has an intricate plot which is used to enhance or justify the magic, that too is a form of cerebral magic. (A plot, if too cerebral, may actually distract from the magic.)

In short, there are distinct elements that may require mental processing beyond immediate perception:

  • Effect
  • Procedure
  • Patter
  • Plot

‘The test of a world-class Cardshark is the ability to deal himself any cards he wants in a poker game. In this case, I’ve allowed you to decide which cards I should deal myself. Keep in mind that you could have chosen any five cards; it was entirely up to you. Let’s try a four-handed poker game.’ – Ortiz, Cardshark

In the most visual forms of magic these elements – effect, procedure, patter and plot – are all very simple and don’t require verbal explanation as to what is happening. The patter and plot merely enhance and contextualise the effect.

Here’s an example based on the well-known ‘Spell-Bound’ coin trick:

The Midas Touch

  • The Midas touch. (Plot.)
  • ‘Some people are said to have the Midas touch.’ (Patter.)
  • The magician rubs a silver coin for a brief moment. (Procedure.)
  • The silver coin changes to gold. (Effect.)

Many magicians think of visual magic as that which takes place in front of the eyes and is self-evident: something levitates or the Ace of Spades visually changes to the King of Hearts. But if we use our definition above – that visual magic may include any effect not requiring verbal explanation for people to be amazed by the outcome – then we have a broader perspective.

For example, ‘Out of This World’ is a visual effect. A deck is shuffled and dealt into two piles randomly by a spectator, and the two piles then shown to contain all reds in one pile and all blacks in the other.

While there is more visual information to process than a simple transposition effect or vanish, nonetheless the mental computation needed to understand the significance of the actions is nominal: the deck was separated into two colours by the spectator dealing randomly. Someone without sound could see what happened and be just as amazed. No verbal explanation is required because the effect is self-evident.

Other visual effects which could be experienced without patter include:

  • Ace Assembly
  • A Poker Player’s Picnic
  • Red/Black Aces
  • The Four Burglars
  • Topsy-Turvy Deck

Conversely, cerebral magic may have visual elements and may even be very simple (as in ‘card at any number’), which is why the two types of magic can be difficult to differentiate. But in cerebral magic the plot takes centre stage and is backed up by visual elements.

Dai Vernon once asked, can an effect be described in one [short] sentence. As useful as it is to think in such terms (especially when it comes to professional performing as we shall see below), this is not a fail-safe system for identifying visual or any other kind magic. ‘Card at any number’ can be described in one sentence, but as we have seen, the effect is not visual. (We also need to consider: does that short sentence describe the effect-procedure (all the actions that took place) or the effect-summary (a bullet-point perception of the effect as a whole)?)

Streamlined Classic

A strong visual effect which requires several sentences to describe is this one (a Marlo trick based on a much older plot by Hofzinser – the ‘Eightsies’ gag is borrowed from a separate Marlo trick):

Four cards are shown which, you say, will indicate their chosen card (say, 8H). The first card shown is the 8H, ‘indicating your card was red’, says the magi (with a straight face). The second card shown is also the 8H, ‘indicating you chose a Heart’. The third card is another 8H, ‘indicating a spot card’. And the last card is the 8H too, ‘indicating you chose the Eight of Hearts’, the performer states, appearing unaware that four identical cards have just been seen. Suddenly the four ‘Eightsies’ (as the magi refers to them) change into the four Aces and the actual 8H is reproduced from the pocket.

A complex-sounding effect on paper, but the interesting thing is that someone who could not hear the patter would still experience most of the effect: they would see four duplicates of the chosen 8H change to Aces and the selection reappear from your pocket. All that would be missing is their comprehension of the plot and why these particular things were happening. ‘Dunbury Delusion’ is another example.

Why it all matters

The reason this differentiation between cerebral and visual matters is that when we are in certain performing situations, the form of magic we use – predominantly cerebral or visual – determines the success or failure of our performance.

A five-year-old probably cannot mentally compute the significance of a signed playing-card ending up inside an envelope inside a wallet. They would also require sustained attention for the duration of the whole effect, from selection of card at start to revelation at end, to piece the whole thing together into a coherent whole.

They probably can compute a jumping bean vanishing from the performer’s hands and appearing inside their shoe. Any situation where people’s intellectual capacities and attention spans are challenged warrants more of the visual kind of magic; similarly in situations where spectators are unable to hear you clearly.

From cerebral to visual

Trick #1:

Let’s say I ask you to think of your birth month; I then show you 12 cards which correspond to months of the year and ask you to remember the card that falls on your month. I put the deck behind my back, openly remove one card and pocket it. It turns out that the pocketed card was the one that previously fell on your birth month.

This is a cerebral trick (CO Williams’ ‘Card in Pocket’), and a good one. The question is, how did I know your birth month? Did I read your body language? Did you unconsciously reveal the month when you looked at the cards?

To appreciate the effect, the spectator(s) must follow the theme for the duration of the effect. Should they lose the thread of the theme for a moment – due to noise or other distraction – then the effect loses its impact, because the impact comes from the theme; the effect is a demonstration of the theme in action.

Trick #2:

Now imagine that, instead of putting the deck behind my back and removing a card to the pocket, I simply ruffle the deck and claim that one card has magically flown to the pocket. The card is shown to be no longer in the deck and then revealed from the pocket. The effect is now ‘I read your mind and made the card fly invisibly’.

Trick #3:

Let’s take it one stage further: instead of having them think of a card I just show one card and make it fly invisibly to the pocket. The effect is now a purely visual one. Part of the impact – reading their mind – has been lost.

We could look at this comparison of three effects as a scale: at one end is a purely cerebral effect; in the middle is a mixture of cerebral and visual; and at the other end, purely visual.

‘Don’t make the audience think.’ – Film directors’ mantra

Cerebral plots

‘Twisting the Aces’ is highly visual in effect and is an excellent trick. There are countless variations, both in method and effect. But after all these years (nearly 60) it is still a trick in need of a plot; something that justifies or enhances the visual action. Possible plots could include ‘the hand is quicker than the eye – without you seeing, a magician can turn cards over and back again’ and ‘what would life be like in a two-dimensional world?’. But we haven’t explained why we would want to turn cards over through magic.

If we had magic powers we might produce money from thin air or restore a broken object – clearly desirable applications of our power. Turning cards over without physical action is meaningless other than as ‘something cool to look at’, which is always the level on which it is performed. We’re showing this strange power of ours ‘because we can’.

A better application of ‘Twisting the Aces’ is where only one Ace turns over to indicate the suit of a previously chosen card. The turned-over Ace then changes into the selection itself (what is referred to as a ‘Hofzinser Aces’ type plot). By adding a cerebral plot we have possibly a better effect.

If you look at a performance or description of an effect by Tamariz called ‘Blown Away’ (aka ‘Neither Blind Nor Silly’) then you will have an example of a trick where the effect, plot, patter and procedure are all inherently cerebral, and yet the result is nonetheless straightforward: even without sound, someone following closely could appreciate and be amazed by it; they just wouldn’t know why you were following such a laboured procedure.

Lennart Green’s ‘Stonehenge’, on the other hand, is pretty much impossible to follow without sound, as clever and amazing as it is. In a way it doesn’t matter, and illustrates why following the exact procedure of an effect is not always strictly necessary. After a while they just give up and wait for the ending. But we wouldn’t want every effect to rely so closely on plot and patter, as we are taxing their attention.

A picture speaks a thousand words – what tricks would you perform here?

Magic in context

Both types of magic have their place, because different types of place exist. Some places are quiet and low-key, and conducive to discussion and thought; others are loud and dark and filled with movement where it’s hard to even ‘hear yourself think’. People’s mindsets in certain situations also differ. Caffeine may be said to sharpen the intellect in some people whereas alcohol may dull it. This is why we read novels and newspapers in coffee shops and not in nightclubs.

An effective magician is one sensitive to setting and who chooses the right kind of effect for the right situation. Producing a deck of cards with a large wad of flash paper and a clap of the hands would be as inappropriate in a quiet tearoom on a Sunday afternoon, as doing some long-winded dealing trick at a gig in a club on a Saturday night.

Amateur vs pro

A common argument among amateurs and pros has always been that the latter consider many amateur effects – which, partly due to performing circumstances and partly to interest in methodology, are often cerebral or cerebral-visual – as ‘not commercial; you’d lose an audience in thirty seconds with a trick like that’. They are right but they are wrong, because they have failed to identify the nature of the effect and the target audience. The poor amateur, equally ignorant of the difference, usually doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

What should be discussed is whether certain tricks are more visual or cerebral, and where they are best suited for performing:

  • Circus Card Trick?
  • Dextrous Fingers?
  • Miraskill?
  • Move-a-Card?
  • Vernon’s Variant?

Cerebral magic allows for a variety and sophistication of effect not seen so much in the world of purely visual magic. In that world, simple things tend to happen. If cerebral magic is ‘too clever’ then visual magic is ‘too simplistic’. We can talk positively or negatively about either and nothing is achieved through such arguments. As we have seen, both have their place. Cerebral can allow for more interaction, visual may be better at certain moments in an event. Very often, a ‘bad trick’ or ‘poor magician’ is simply a symptom of poor material selection; of doing the wrong type of trick for the occasion.

A film maker (Ryan Claffey) mentioned to me that for certain types of film which appeal to the widest possible audience, the mantra among film directors is ‘Don’t make the audience think’. I’ve heard professional magicians say similar things (‘Don’t make spectators work’).

In more sophisticated films and novels the mantra would be the complete opposite. This is the level on which amateur magic might be performed if the situation is right.

Saturday night / Sunday afternoon

A useful exercise is to write down all the tricks in one’s repertoire and highlight them in different colours according to which are mainly visual, cerebral, or a mixture. Learn to recognise the types of effect when you watch other magicians.

I personally categorise effects as ‘Saturday night’ and ‘Sunday afternoon’, as these not only incorporate cerebral vs visual but also take into account surroundings and the likely frame of mind and attention span of the target audience. It also recognises that when it comes to commercial gig tricks vs kitchen-table tricks, visual are not synonymous with commercial magic just as cerebral are not synonymous with amateur magic; even though the two types of magic tend to favour certain types of situation.

‘Floating Banknote’ is a highly visual trick used by professionals, but is not inherently interactive. The ‘Lie Detector’ card trick is mainly cerebral, but is an excellent gig trick due to interaction with the spectator. ‘Remember and Forget’ can be a lot of fun (and is used by several professionals I know) but is very cerebral in plot.

In the grand scheme of things we need to address many factors including:

  • Visual vs cerebral
  • Interactive or demonstrative
  • Simple or complex
  • Pace and duration
  • Standing or sitting

Most importantly we need to try things out and not be afraid of failure. We can spend days or months planning and working out what theoretically works, cross-referencing criteria and so on. At the end of the day it comes down to feel and intuition, and these develop through a combination of experience and understanding fundamental concepts.

UPDATED: 30/06/19, 12:56PM

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