Tricks of the Mind

Magician Marcell Babai, A11, has immersed himself in the art of manipulating perceptions

A flaming candle morphs into a dove. One red ball becomes three, and then they disappear. The severed rope is whole again. This is the stuff of magic—or, more accurately, magic tricks.

But the biggest trick of all is that you are the magician’s primary assistant. He is not manipulating reality; he is playing with your perceptions, vision and memory. Without you, there is no magic.

Welcome to the world of Marcell Babai, A11, an economics major and, oh yes, a professional magician.

Babai’s lifelong preoccupation with prestidigitation bore fruit in 2009, when the judges and the audience voted him number one at the Chicago Magic Competition, an annual affair sponsored by the Society of American Magicians, the oldest fraternal organization for magicians in America.

“The magician that I am now is heavily influenced by the street magic I did in high school in Chicago,” Babai says. “The best part of street magic is reacting to the small audience. It’s never the same twice. It has to be faster and snappier than stage magic—you have to hold people’s attention or they will just walk away.”

Babai has taken his street smarts into the classroom, teaching an Experimental College course this spring on the psychology of magic. His students are learning the mind games that create the magic—and a few tricks to boot. For the final course project, they have to perform card tricks before an audience.

“Physical misdirection is well known, where you use, say, a gesture with one hand to distract attention from the other,” says Babai. “But other psychological techniques are more complex and harder for audiences to be aware of.”

These include giving observers false clues so they think they know how a trick is being done, and then surprising them with an unexpected twist. Say the trick overtly seems to be about making the jack of hearts appear at the top of the deck. You think he’s just palmed it, but it ends up in your pocket. This works because people are more interested in confirming their own theories than keeping an open mind to see the truth of the trick, according to current psychological research.

In addition to psychological misdirection, there is also mental forcing, in which a magician can, for example, influence you to choose a specific card from a full deck through suggestion and visual cues. One example is making someone think they have the free choice of all 52 cards in a deck, but subtly showing them the ace of spades longer than other cards to influence their decision.

Some of the more exciting revelations about how magic works on the mind are coming from new collaborations between cognitive scientists and magicians, Babai says. Research in the emerging field of “neuromagic” involves a range of observational experiments, including the use of eye-tracking technology to see where we tend to focus our attention and why.

Babai points to a well-known study in psychology in which subjects were asked to watch a basketball game and focus on players wearing white uniforms or black ones. What people consistently did not notice was someone dressed in a bear costume moon-walking across the court—right before their eyes. In the lexicon, it’s called “sustained inattentional blindness,” and it directly relates to how magicians make magic.

“At the end of the day, the magic is just in people’s minds,” Babai says. “This new merging of science and what magicians have been doing through experiential learning for centuries is pretty interesting.”


Magician Marcell Babai talks about the tricks of the trade, and shows how they are done. Video: Kelvin Ma.

Wanting to be Deceived

Babai was first introduced to magic after his parents bought him a starter magic kit when he was eight years old, and got hooked when he bought his first book on sleight-of-hand magic at age 12. He never looked back. During high school, he practiced card tricks under his desk during classes. And every night after dinner and homework, it was magic practice from nine to midnight. “That’s how I just learned things as fast as I could,” he says.

“I’m always looking for something new,” says Babai, who came to the U.S. from Hungary as a toddler and still speaks Hungarian at home with his parents. “I’m always looking for the next best trick.”

His interest in magic doesn’t mean he’s not into the stuff of reality: he’s planning on graduate school in economics. But Babai continues to pursue his lifelong dream of being one of magic’s legendary performers. It all depends how things go, he says, whether his future will be in magic or monetary policies.

But magic keeps him going. In addition to teaching the Ex College class, he performs regularly. He had three gigs at Tufts in April at a range of student events.

“I have learned there are people in the audience who want to be deceived—they are pleasantly surprised at their inability to figure a trick out,” Babai says. “Some people want to be fooled, opening that door just a crack to worlds where more than the expected can happen.”

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