Recently, Joshua Jay broke the magicians’ code when he showed his Harvard audience the secret to a trick.
But it was OK, said Jay, a New York magician, author, and public speaker, because he was using it at an institution of higher learning not to expose but to create a teachable moment for those there to hear about his process.
At a packed Knafel Center Tuesday Jay carefully unveiled his literal sleight of hand. First he asked the audience to extend their hands, palms down; cross left wrist over their right and turn hands so both thumbs point down; interlock fingers. Later, when Jay told them to flip their joined hands over so thumbs point up, as he easily demonstrated onstage, his onlookers laughed as they struggled to comply. They couldn’t of course, because Jay had switched his hands in plain view, putting his palms together without them noticing.
“I didn’t just fool you,” he said, “you fooled yourselves.”
Jay pulled back the curtain on his craft during the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s 2019–2020 Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Humanities, offering listeners a look at some of his techniques involving perception, attention, and surprise, techniques that have practical applications beyond the realm of magic.
The trick to his trick, said Jay, who interspersed his talk with a range of illusions, involved one of his favorite tools of the trade: mental misdirection. Unlike physical misdirection — a loud sound, explosion, or other device that makes people look away from what he doesn’t want them to see — mental misdirection distracts the mind “so that you don’t perceive what I am doing.” Jay explained that when he instructed his listeners to wiggle the middle finger on their right hand while still clasping them together, it took “just a little more thought” and distracted them long enough for him to release his hands and clasp them back together.