The Magic of Neuroscience
“The magic isn’t happening in my hands. It’s happening in your brain.”
“OK, here it goes,” says Daniel Roy C’20, palming the torn-off corner of a playing card, popping it into his mouth, and starting to chew.
All eyes are on him. That includes a packed theater, two audience volunteers on stage, a celebrity host, producers, directors—and the keenest observers in the room, renowned magicians Penn Jillette and Teller.
Eventually his audience will expand to anyone who tunes in to a recent episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a CW show that challenges magicians to perform tricks that Penn & Teller can’t deconstruct. Which is why Roy is up on stage, eating a piece of a playing card. “You know,” he says, trying to swallow down the stiff paper, “no matter how many times I do this, I’ll never forget how much I hate the taste of the seven of spades.”
Yep. That was it—the card his volunteer had chosen. And Roy, who went by Daniel Fishman-Engel when he was at Penn, identified it solely by tasting a tiny piece of its corner—at least he did if you believe in magic.
Almost 10 months later, in the final days of 2020, Roy is greeting another audience, this time over Zoom. He was supposed to be working rooms as a professional magician by now. Following his television appearance, he had gigs booked, a move planned. But then came Covid-19, wiping away live performance, magic included. So instead he’s hunkered down at his two moms’ house (his two dads live about 10 minutes away), waiting out the pandemic with a slick DIY setup for virtual magic shows. “It was definitely disappointing,” he says of the pivot, “but such is the nature of an unpredictable career track.”
His sold-out Zoom show—ticketed through the Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania (where he often performed in-person as a student at Penn)—marks one of the many performance opportunities he’s had since March.
Roy has adapted his usual sleight-of-hand routines to focus solely on card tricks, which work well over Zoom. Even in video close-ups, his hands move so fast that it’s impossible to see how he’s plucking four aces from the deck or dealing himself a full run of same-suit cards. In a sleight-of-mind trick, he reads a couple’s vocal and visual tells to deduce a random card they pulled out of their own deck at home.
A number of his tricks confound even when he’s openly explaining how they’re done. But unlike some magicians, Roy says he’s less interested in having you think he’s a wizard (even though people keep telling him he looks like Harry Potter) than he is in preying on shortcomings of the human mind—mechanics he learned about as a neurobiology major at Penn.
“The magic isn’t happening in my hands. It’s happening in your brain,” he says in a separate Zoom interview. “There are these cognitive loopholes that you can’t switch off. It doesn’t matter if you know they exist, they’re still there. I think that’s the more interesting side of how magic works—less of the nitty gritty how and more on a brain level why does it work.”
“If I can get you to ask the wrong question, you’re never going to arrive at the right answer,” he adds. “And in a sense, that’s so much of what we do as magicians: getting you to pose the wrong question to yourself—hopefully a question that is unanswerable.”
It isn’t mandatory for magicians to know neuroscience. “But it’s also very helpful,” Roy says. “It can very much inform the way you handle tricks, and help you ascertain what might be tricky and what might not be. I also think it tells you a lot more about some of the meaning or philosophy behind magic.”
Long before his first neuroscience class at Penn, Roy got hooked on magic at age 10. He spent hours at a local magic shop every weekend and even more time practicing at home. Often he’d work on a trick for up to 12 hours straight, so absorbed that he’d forget all about lunch and dinner.
He alternated nights between his two sets of parents: a lesbian couple and a gay couple who had been close friends for years before deciding to have and coparent a child together. “I grew up in San Francisco, so I didn’t face real discrimination or pushback in any way,” he says. Still, as the only child of four parents, “it’s great on holidays and terrible if I get in trouble,” he laughs.
Roy quit doing magic for a few years in high school, sick of being labeled “The Magic Kid” and having classmates order him to perform tricks on the spot. But by the time he left for Penn, he’d found his way back. He joined the Penn Illusionist Club and refashioned it into a resource for new and aspiring magicians to learn sleight-of-hand.
He also made a sport of using magic in as many final projects as he could. How many times did it work? “More than anticipated!” he says, recalling a card trick set to a Chaucer tale, a slew of philosophy theories that also became a card trick, and a scheduled exam that he helped his whole class stall out by performing two hours of magic tricks.
Roy took off for the Chicago Magic Lounge and the Magic Castle in Los Angeles the summer after his junior year at Penn. Between the two, he performed 33 shows in 11 days. “I thought I would hate it, be totally exhausted,” he says, “and I was exhausted—but I loved it.” For the first time, he thought about delaying a career in science to work as a professional magician instead.
Only a few months after that summer tour, he became one of the youngest magicians ever to win the Milbourne Christopher Award for Close-Up Magician of the Year. By the time Fool Us came along, Roy had decided to follow a magic career as far as it might take him. But less than a week after he taped his TV appearance, the country began to shut down.
With in-person shows off the table, Roy has had plenty of time to beef up his online presence over the past year. His YouTube channel offers tutorials for tricks and techniques. His website (danielroymagic.com) highlights a quote from Penn & Teller on the main page: “We loved you!” He films bite-sized tricks for TikTok, including grabbing four aces out of a jumble of cards he throws up in the air. He’s also offering private virtual magic lessons.
“It’s kind of hard to even conceive of what my next move is going to be, because we don’t know what the state of the world’s going to be like in three months, or even two weeks,” he says. But he’s still planning to get on the road once live performance is possible again.
After his Zoom show in late December, Roy sticks around for audience questions. “Have you been on Penn & Teller?” calls out a woman who must not follow him online. He says that he has. “Did you fool ’em?” asks another.
“I got very close,” Roy says. “I actually have a funny story about that.” When he left the stage shortly after Penn & Teller pinpointed how his trick worked, a stagehand tapped him on the shoulder. Teller wanted to talk with him. “He said, ‘I just want you to know that you actually fooled both of us individually,’” Roy recalls. “‘Part of the trick fooled me, part of the trick fooled Penn.’” It took both of the veteran magicians to unravel his ruse.
“It would have been cool to fool them,” he adds, “but they totally got me fair and square.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06