Magic and Memory

In the world of the magician, black is white and white is black. The unimportant becomes important and the important is made to seem unimportant. I put a coin in my left hand. I want you to look at my left hand so I focus attention there, as that is the important area: the place where the magic is about to happen. The area or actions that are methodologically important are made to seem completely unimportant to you, the spectator.

My left hand is of course methodologically important too as without the misdirection and focus on that hand the method cannot work. In three-card monte it’s vital to always switch the cards around after making the throw, because it’s the switching around that seems to be the important bit.

But what is happening in the shadows is, if you like, where the real action is taking place. So we could artificially think of method and effect in terms of importance and how we switch around their seeming importance, or invert the binoculars, so to speak. In Robert Harbin’s famous Zig-Zag Lady illusion the methodologically important sections of the wooden cabinet are painted black while the misdirectional facades and edges are brightly coloured to make them seem important. Right there is the key to the whole thing.

The timeless zone

However there is another element which is the other side of the coin, that is time. Like everything else, magic and deception take place in space-time; but it’s all too easy to focus solely on the space element. The reason is to do with memory: time doesn’t exist in the memory. Dreams move but memories sort of stay still; or they they move a bit, like those spooky ‘moving photos’ you see on camera-phones (where the waves or people move for a split second and then the photo stays still).

Magic involves constructing composite or cumulative experiences which occur temporally on the familiar ‘linear scale of experience’ but are remembered retrospectively as a whole and timeless experience. The coin enters my hand at the two-second mark, the coin is revealed gone at the five-second mark and my other hand is shown empty at the seven-second mark. For the spectator, the timeline melts away and they are left with a single, composite memory: the coin vanished in the blink of an eye.

Most magic is memory

It may seem obvious when drawing attention to it, but most magic happens in the memory. Aside from visual illusions – levitations, animations, penetrations (Linking Rings, Goldin’s Buzz Saw illusion etc.) and distortions (Zig Zag Lady) where an ongoing effect takes place in the present moment – most effects consist of a before and after, and it is only in mentally comparing the two that an effect is created in the memory. Even the Metamorphosis illusion (aka Substitution Trunk) conforms to this theory.

We can photograph an ongoing or sustained illusion and the photo will communicate some or all of the effect: somebody floats or has been sawn in half. But if a coin vanishes, no photo will capture the moment it vanishes! Photo 1 will be coin on hand and photo 2 will be empty hand. Unless and until someone invents a gradual, visual coin vanish (like people being beamed up on Star Trek) we won’t get round this.

(There is a visual coin vanish – complete with vanishing shadows in the background – here, that gives an idea of what it might look like.)

…[T]he use of past experience to deal with new experience is a fundamental feature of the way the human mind works.
– Gillian Cohen


But magicians do get round it in their own way through the application of acting, misdirection, cognitive psychology and memory manipulation, to create a mental illusion. If I put a coin in my hand and the coin vanishes, (a) you saw the coin enter my hand – the before state – and (b) you now see my hand empty – the after state.

You experience the effect at B immediately in the moment of amazement, so in that respect magic does happen as a here-and-now experience; but even that stems from your knowledge, belief or understanding about A which is held in your short-term or unprocessed memory.

You then quickly reassess the whole in retrospect by mentally comparing before and after or the juxtaposition of A and B; and you’re now fooled in a more permanent way in the longer-term or processed memory. You keep playing back what you think happened which (in the hands of a competent magician) will never be what actually happened, even from what was plainly visible and unhidden.

Of course this is a simplistic explanation; the reality is more complex, based on assumptions and partial perception of events, especially when the magician uses subtle misdirection.

(Lay people and newcomers to magic assume misdirection is coarse and bold but real misdirection is subtle, like the constant drone of air-conditioning that you only notice when it is suddenly switched off. Crude misdirection is noticed and, even though the secret action may not have been seen, the moment it logically happened is deduced. Real misdirection, by definition, isn’t noticed or remembered.)

The spectator should not remember the moment when the coin entered the hand, but simply that the hand contained a coin and now the coin isn’t there any more. Hence A – the before state – will, in a true magical situation, disappear (because it wasn’t clocked in the first place) and be recreated in their imagination as a false memory such as ‘the coin was sitting on the palm of your hand all along’.

It’s just like editing out pieces of film and splicing the rest together into a seamless experience. In ‘The Lucky Penny’, if the T– Ch—- is done correctly there will be no memory of your bringing the wrong card near the deck; the impression is that you simply left the wrong card where it was on the table and it then changed to the right card.

Mind twisters

If we look at the basic idea of before and after we see that when misdirection is applied, the before is actually false and only the after is real. Two cards change places – before and after. Like a lot of effects, the after state lingers in real time: the two cards are face up in their transposed positions. The before state, misperceived in the moment and backed up by assumptions and beliefs, crystallises into a recreated, pseudo memory.

(Where two objects transpose, people need to consciously note the apparent before state in order for the effect to register – whereas in a coin vanish the before state is simpler and hence the actual actions of the before may be only faintly registered; but the same principle applies in that the before state was illusory.)

If you like mind twisters, try this: a prediction made before but revealed now becomes after, while the predicted word, card or other item chosen after the prediction was made becomes before (although the prediction may in fact have been secretly made after). This is because there is both conceptual before and after as well as experiential, and the mind zigzags around these befores and afters in thinking about what happened.

This is why magicians and mentalists make a big deal about where their predictions are physically located – in a sealed envelope hanging from the ceiling or paper-clipped to their lapel – to ensure that the apparent before state is remembered clearly.

Passive memory modification

Magicians manipulate perceptions at the moment method is executed and in so doing passively allow one to create false memories based on incomplete experience. Such passive memory modification can be highly significant.

Some years ago a magician performed a couple of effects at a function: card on ceiling and one where the chosen card flies out of the deck which was placed on the floor. You couldn’t have two effects more physically disparate. The next year when asked back to perform at the same place, the magician was asked, ‘Can you do that trick again where you made my card move across the ceiling?’ They had conflated two entirely different effects and merged them into something truly impossible.

(It hardly need be said that memory modifies itself anyway, regardless of any deception. We’ve all had the experience, or something equivalent, of remembering a place ‘up on the right’ and then returning years later find it is actually ‘down on the left’.)

Active memory modification

Do magicians only manipulate your perceptions, relying solely on passive memory modification? If we agree that to do one is automatically to do the other – to warp your perceptions now is to inherently leave you with false memories later – then yes we rely heavily on this mechanism; but not completely.

Our manipulation of memory goes beyond the automatic or passive byproducts of deception. We manipulate the memory itself as a sort of double whammy or back-up mechanism. We might do this in a variety of ways: before the event, during the event, and after the event:

  • Before the event: my magic teacher always fooled his students by executing a feint (in the sense of a true action that matches a later, untrue action) before an actual vanish. In seeing the coin in his hand, for real, you would later ‘see’ the coin in the hand again before it vanished, and this is what you remembered afterwards. I never stopped falling for this trick of the mind. You would conflate the two memories and conclude the coin vanished from that hand. Here, conditioning is used to create expectation and belief as well as a visual memory.
  • During the event: picking a coin up off the table (Slydini Sw— V—–) you lean forward over the middle of the table placing the coin in your other hand right in front of their eyes; you light a lighter which is used as a makeshift magic wand and the coin vanishes. The lighter is the visual-memory hook that creates the moment of the vanish.
  • After the event: the coin is revealed under a plate on the other side of the table. This transforms your memory of the whole event.

We can use two or more subtleties together to create an effect. The coin is placed in our other hand; oh wait, do we have a lighter? Let’s get the lighter out. Again, the coin goes into the hand; the spectator waves the lighter, and the coin vanishes. The coin is then revealed under the plate.

Another example (with patter): the coin is shown on your palm and you point out the date on the coin: 1990. You remove your lighter and place the coin back in the same hand; you peek inside the hand to remind yourself of the date: ‘it was… let me check… nineteen ninety’. The hand is closed and the spectator waves the lighter. ‘Let’s make the coin go back in time to nineteen eighty-nine.’ Of course the subtext is that in 1989 it didn’t exist and so the coin vanishes.

A common form of post-event modification is the false summary: in a card trick we might say, ‘Now remember, you yourself shuffled the deck.’ That the shuffle occurred at an inconsequential moment (or even during a previous effect) or that we’re taking advantage of the common misconception that complete cuts shuffle the deck, is a white lie (in fact, a form of neo-cheating) that goes a long way towards creating the overall illusion.

…[Q]uestions asked immediately after an event can introduce new – not necessarily correct – information, which is then added to the memorial representation of the event, thereby causing its reconstruction or alteration.
– Elizabeth F Loftus

What’s my card again?

More prosaic forms of memory enhancement (or substitutes) are used for ensuring people remember their chosen card and don’t get confused by suits (it’s common for non-card players to mix up Clubs and Spades). One simple solution is to always have a spectator show their chosen card to others. It’s not for nothing that professional magicians have spectators sign their cards. A ruined trick is more consequential to a professional than a ruined deck.

Magicians who perform the classic ‘Effective Poker Deal’ or similar effects may have come across another common problem. They will shuffle the life out of a deck at the start, only at the end after revealing four Aces or a royal flush to be accused of starting with a prearranged deck!

This is particularly so when using the effect as an opening trick. I once started a performance with Stewart James’ ‘Further Than That’. Big mistake! Remember that an effect where cards magically rearrange themselves only works when it is not possible for the performer to have pre-arranged them. So we need to manage their memory to remember specific actions (in this case, shuffling the deck). We can do this directly or indirectly and both ways are good.


The first is to shuffle the deck several times using either humorous patter or not as the case may be, to draw attention to the shuffles. ‘Not many people know this but shuffling cards face down like this only mixes the backs of the cards. To shuffle the faces we need to turn the cards face up and shuffle like this.’ (A Frank Garcia gag?) Hence through the slightly ridiculous or bizarre world of magicians’ logic we are creating a memory of shuffling.

We may do this more straightforwardly by demonstrating three or four different methods of shuffling while talking about how people in different parts of the world (or different types of gaming: casinos, private games etc.) shuffle cards. Again we are creating a memory, a hook that people will either recall later or that we can easily refer back to if they don’t immediately remember. ‘Ah, but you remember the casino shuffles?’


The indirect approach is in many ways even better, based as it is on one of the strongest tools in magic: the triggering of assumptions. Many years ago Marlo pointed out that Vernon’s ‘Triumph’ (and many versions of it, including those using Daryl’s well-known cutting display) preserve a f–l —- st–k. Certain poker deals recycle or restore a st–k after several deal-outs, and many effects mix only part of the —- if you are relying on a partial st–k. In the present case of the ‘Effective’ deal, we can easily perform several preceding effects before segueing seamlessly into this one.

The result of this indirect approach is that the obvious mixing or randomising of cards is locked into people’s memory of the tricks we performed, and their assumption that ‘the deck is obviously mixed’. The ‘obviously’ bit is what matters: ‘obviously’ operates on the level of both real knowledge and pseudo knowledge, and to most people these two forms of knowledge feel the same (that is, on the same level of conviction).

(‘Triumph’ is particularly good in this context as not only do the cards get handled in a manner likely to mix them, but the effect itself revolves around actual shuffling. Win-win.)

Belief vs knowledge

Assumptions and beliefs often feel like knowledge even though belief and knowledge are quite different. Knowledge is experiential/factual – it is real or at least directly based on reality (we all distort knowledge whether we realise it or not) – whereas belief is something extrapolated from secondary (or imagined) data, digested, and then taken as given.

Imagine we live in a utopia where there are almost never any train delays. If we see a train arriving we have real knowledge of the train. But in this utopia if the indicator board shows the next train arriving in two minutes, we ‘know the train is arriving’ even though we have no factual proof. In fact we don’t know, we believe; but this is a strong belief backed up by empirical evidence and we treat this belief as knowledge so as to focus on other matters. We could call this ‘assumptional knowledge’ to distinguish it from real knowledge. The important thing is that they both feel the same.

Magic slips through the net of perception by simulating what are normally empirically known or recognised actions and situations which conform to our schema or learned view of things, and hence becomes not even assumptional knowledge but an illusion of real knowledge: a ghost train complete with thundering wheels and screeching brakes.

It makes no sense

After all, why are we going to such lengths, performing such actions if we aren’t actually doing those things? It doesn’t make sense. That’s why when watching magic it makes more sense to sit back, relax and let yourself be led by the illusion. It’s far more enjoyable than sitting there trying to second guess every movement.

A friend of mind, Danny Rosenbaum, showed me a puzzle-lock that opens through the use of a secret mechanism. It is not the secret mechanism by itself that makes the lock a close analogy of how magic works; it is the fact that the lock has a dummy keyhole. Who ever heard of a keyhole that wasn’t a keyhole?

This, incidentally, is why self-taught amateurs who don’t understand the concept of naturalness get caught out with their fishy-looking actions: their keyholes look like plug holes or even no holes at all.

It is this single factor more than the proverbial smoke, mirrors, trapdoors and hidden wires, that epitomises how magic really works. In magic, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck… it may be a rabbit.

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