Until I read Alex Stone's Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind I had thought of magic solely as a strange pursuit for the willfully gullible, practiced at kid's birthday parties and on gaudy stages in Las Vegas by guys wearing capes and top hats. I knew there was a trick to it all, of course. It's just that I didn't really care what the trick was, nor did I care to be fooled by it.
"You've got to have a sense of humor about it. Magic is geeky, there's no way around it."
However, as Fooling Houdini details, while the parts about Vegas and silly costumes are mostly true, magic can be serious, and edifying, business. Magicians are experts at manipulating perception and psychology to make us think cards can levitate to the tops of decks (as Stone demonstrated to me), or, in the case of mentalists, that they know our deepest secrets. Cards can't levitate, and mentalists can't see inside our minds, of course. But that's the hook of Fooling Houdini: it gives us a glimpse of how these things are done, and paints a portrait of the people who do them.
In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, I talk to Stone about his experiences in magic, the inspiration for his book, and the relationship between magic and science. Stone, currently on hiatus from pursuing a physics PhD. at Columbia, knows a thing or two about the latter. "There are lots of ties between magic and science, particularly neuroscience, psychology, and mathematics," he tells Gelf. "Magic can teach us a lot about how the mind works."
Gelf Magazine: How did you first get into magic?
Alex Stone: I first got into when I was five, when my father bought me a magic kit at FAO Schwarz when he was on a trip to NYC. It was a beginner’s kit. My debut performance was at my own sixth birthday party, which was actually a disaster.
I kept at it as a kid because it was how my Dad and I bonded. He wasn't a religious man, he didn't care for sports or the great outdoors, so this was how we bonded. Even now, he loves it when I show him tricks, though he never wants to know how they're done which is kind of funny because he's a scientist. Many years later, when I moved to New York, I discovered this subculture here, with secret societies, lectures, tournaments like the Magic Olympics. It's a world full of eccentric characters, and ideas, it's a very innovative world. I thought that was cool and I wanted to share that with people, but I also wanted to explore some more universal questions that arise when you think about magic, stuff about psychology, deception. There are lots of ties between magic and science, particularly neuroscience, psychology, and mathematics. Magic can teach us a lot about how the mind works.
Gelf Magazine: You spend a lot of time in the book discussing the "How do they do this stuff?" aspect to magic.
Alex Stone: There's an old saying that magic doesn't happen in the magician's hands, but the mind of the spectator. The real secret to magic is the psychology of it. Expert magicians know how to manipulate a person's attention. They know all kinds of tricks and ploys that scientists have studied in recent years.
Gelf Magazine: What made you decide to make this stuff into a book?
Alex Stone: I combined these things I had been interested in forever, magic and science, especially psychology and mathematics. And no one had ever done a book about it. There have been books about all kinds of niche subcultures, scrabble players, orchid collectors, poker players. This is a subculture that to me is equally interesting as those and very rich and filled with quirky and at times brilliant people and I thought it's a shame that most people have no idea this even exists. I thought it needed to be given its day in the light. It was stuff that I would talk about all the time to people, and eventually someone said that I should write a book about it. That's kind of when the light bulb went off.
Gelf Magazine: That's a hard thing to find, something that hasn't been done before.
Alex Stone: Yeah, it was a really great opportunity, to do something that hadn't been covered before. Which is weird, I really would've thought it would've been done. Yet, no one had one a book about this modern magic subculture. Maybe because its very secretive and its hard to gain access. Maybe my already being a part of this world helped.
Gelf Magazine: It seems like a lot of "legitimate" scientists and academics have had a growing interest in subcultures like magic or gambling that have historically been viewed illicit or unserious. Why do you think that is?
Alex Stone: I think scientists like to have fun, so that's part of it. But also, in recent years there's been interest in groups that have engaged in informal experimentation for many years and trying to model experimentally what many groups have long understood intuitively about the mind. Magicians have been experimenting with and exploiting psychological principles, optical principles, other cognitive mechanisms for a long time, and recently scientists have realized that this is important. There's a desire to understand how this stuff is done on a scientific level.
Alex Stone: I think it's hilarious and not entirely inaccurate. The Gob thing is a really cutting and surprisingly true depiction of magic. The alliance he belongs to is a straight-up send off of the Academy of Magical Arts, which is seated at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. And when Gob gets kicked out of the society for exposing secrets, that is very accurate because the same thing happened to me. When I wrote about magic secrets in an article in Harper's, I was in fact excommunicated from my local magic society. I also think a lot of magicians try to cultivate this image of being wizards of being mysterious, and it's kind of silly. You've got to have a sense of humor about it. Magic is geeky, there's no way around it. And all the secret societies and rituals and all that, the magicians who do think they are shamans and wizards, that's fine and all, but if you're going to do that you have to accept a certain amount of mockery thrown your way. I love magic, but if you do, I think you've got to have a good ability to laugh at yourself.
Gelf Magazine: You took a lot of flack for that Harper's thing.
Alex Stone: Yeah, when I wrote this article the chairman of the Society of American Magicians sent me a letter by certified mail. I think it was the only piece of certified mail I've ever gotten. It was a very formal letter, it said that I was in violation of Article 11, Section 1 of the code of ethics or something like that. They wanted me to resign. I decided to fight it. But it never went to court. The upshot was that I got kicked out of my local magic society, but not the national one. There are still angry wizards out there who hate me, though, who won't talk to me or shake my hand.
Gelf Magazine: I'd imagine the book added fuel to their fire.
Alex Stone: Yeah, I think so. Which is silly because this book is basically a love letter to magic. However, the vast majority of people in magic have been very positive about it. There's a small but vocal minority that dislikes it. I think the more modern, forward-thinking magicians think the whole magicians’ code thing, the secrecy thing, is pretty silly. This is the age of free information. And truthfully, exposure of secrets has been around for centuries, and it's never hurt magic. If anything, it's only made people more interested.
Gelf Magazine: What are the biggest misconceptions that most people have about magicians and magic?
Alex Stone: I think one misconception is that magic is this staid, Vaudeville-era pursuit that stopped evolving a hundred years ago. But if you look at it, it's really a dynamic and vibrant field. There is an astounding amount of ingenuity and creative energy. You can hardly go a week without someone coming up with a new principle, there's a feeling in the magic world that people are always pushing the envelope. Also, a lot of people think magicians can't fool each other. But magicians are always fooling each other with new stuff, that's why they have these magic tournaments. I think also people don't understand how magic ties into psychology, cognitive science, even religion. The history of religion is very tied in with magic.
Gelf Magazine: Yeah, I thought it was interesting how, in the book, you said that Jesus was basically a magician.
Alex Stone: There's a theory by this guy Morton Smith, who was one of the great Biblical scholars of the post-World War II era, that Jesus was performing magic tricks that were later interpreted as miracles or fulfillments of Hebrew prophecy. His claim was that Jesus probably studied magic, maybe in Egypt, during the 18 years of his life unaccounted for in the gospels. He points out that Jesus in his lifetime was known as a miracle worker, that was his claim to fame, and for centuries after his death Christians exerted a lot of energy trying to disprove the claim that he was a charlatan. In fact, archaeologists unearthed this bowl in the harbor in Alexandria with what a lot of people think is the first known mention of Jesus. It reads “Christ, the magician.” The predominant view of Christianity at the time was that it was a kind of magical religion.
Gelf Magazine: I had basically no interest in magic prior to reading the book. What's the best way for a magician to wow a skeptic?
Alex Stone: I would say either a super badass card trick or a mind reading routine. Sometimes people who are skeptical about magic will be totally blown away by some sort of mentalism routine.
Gelf Magazine: Magic obviously involves a lot of learning about perception. And this would have a broader applicability, I'm sure. In what other pursuits, particularly pursuits that people would engage in in daily life, has learning magic and the science behind it helped you?
Alex Stone: I think one of the main things is that magic clues you into how much you don't notice. We tend to overestimate our powers of observation because we aren't really aware of the things we don't notice. Our brains can only take in certain amounts of information at one time, and there's a lot of research on how we are very good at focusing on something. As adults we are very good at focusing on a lone task while ignoring subsidiary distractions. In terms of more practical skills, you learn how to manipulate people's behaviors, to control people's choices while maintaining the illusion that they've acted freely, to anticipate the ways that people remember things. All these things can be, and are, used in business, sales, Wall Street, and politics. These things are used by magicians and con artists but also apply to everyday situations.