How an Online Card Trick 'Reads' Your Mind

High Angle View Of Cards On Table
Erich Rau / EyeEm / Getty Images

There is a well-traveled card trick and mind-reading illusion that keeps popping up online, both in the form of a viral video and in the form of a PowerPoint presentation purporting to be the work of master stage magician David Copperfield (though the trick almost certainly is not).

The illusion can be startling until you figure out how it works—at which point you may find yourself wondering how anyone could possibly fall for such a simple, obvious deception.

The Illusion

The trick begins with the announcement that the video (or PowerPoint presentation) will read your mind. Don't believe it? First, take a look at these six cards. Now pick one—and only one—and remember it. Concentrate on the card you have selected. Now, prepare for that card to vanish. The six-card layout disappears and is replaced by a five-card layout. Conspicuously missing from the set is the card you have chosen. Voila! It's gone!

How the Trick Works

This is one of the simplest yet most effective mind reading illusions ever devised. How does it work?

Take another look—a careful look—at the "before" and "after" card layouts, and it will become clear. Do you see it?

The difference, aside from the fact that there's one fewer card in the second layout, is that none of the cards in the second layout are the same as in the first. Not only did your chosen card disappear—all of the original cards disappeared and were replaced with similar but completely different cards. In other words, this card trick is just that—a trick. No matter which card you select from the first set, the computer will "read your mind" and make it disappear.

Misdirection

Like most magic tricks, this one depends on misdirection, which is a form of deception. The audience is focused on one thing, which distracts it from something else.

There are two kinds of misdirection: the first method, which is time sensitive, encourages the audience to look away for a brief moment so that the magic trick or sleight of hand can be accomplished without detection. This is the case in numerous card tricks and other feats of so-called "magic."

The second approach consists of reframing the audience's perception and has nothing to do with the senses. Instead, the minds of the audience are distracted into thinking that focusing on an unimportant object is responsible for the resulting magic, when in fact this actually has no impact on the effect at all.

That's precisely the case with this trick. Because we've been instructed to focus our attention and memory on one card—and one card only—most of us fail to absorb any details about the other five. When the entire set is replaced by a different one that looks approximately the same, we accept it as exactly the same. Abracadabra! (The giveaway with this trick is that the entire set of cards disappears before being replaced by the second set. If the trick were really magic—that is, if the computer could really read your mind—then only the card you chose would disappear.)

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