• Tricks and Frames: Lessons From Magic


    When famed magician Penn Jillette says, “Wanna see a card trick?” we expect a card trick. But  the audience at Sunday’s Michael F. Marmor Lecture in Ophthalmology and the Arts (Sym28V) got so much more during Mr. Jillette’s talk, “Lyin’ to your Lyin’ Eyes.”

    “I’m very interested in the difference between illusion and trickery,” Mr. Jillette explained, “and very interested in what illusions happen in the visual cortex and what happens in the even more mysterious realm of consciousness and processing.”

    (Oh, and don’t worry, Mr. Jillette delivered on that card trick—with a special guest cameo to boot.)

    Illusions vs. tricks. Although some magicians and performers prefer the term illusion to tricks, Mr. Jillette has a bone to pick with this lingo, “[because] illusion is a term of art within the magic community for something that is strictly visual.” According to him, good, live magic is essentially intellectual.

    As he sees it, audiences who come to his shows are “consenting” to be “lied” to for the duration of the event. “That idea of how you establish what is real is so important that even in this low form of showbiz, magicians deal with it because magic is a playful way to study epistemology with consent.”

    Don’t take the frame for granted. When Mr. Jillette performed his card trick for moderator Michael F. Marmor, MD, Mr. Jillette (spoiler alert) switched his card deck off frame. Meanwhile, the audience, engaged in the performance, had no reason to suspect anything was happening outside of the frame.

    He asked the audience to consider that if performers can make the audience “perceive things that are not real and draw conclusions that are not accurate, then what can someone else do outside of that and where are the frames and what are we doing?” That is why he and his partner in magic Teller make a concerted effort in the types of shows they perform. They try to make sure their audience never trusts something they as performers know (or believe) not to be true.

    Bringing it back to ophthalmology. The virtual audience remained active throughout Mr. Jillette’s presentation, encouraging a discussion between Mr. Jillette and Dr. Marmor that touched upon how all of this ties back to medicine. Several viewers drew parallels between Mr. Jillette’s talk and informed consent in medicine, with one individual saying:  “The morality of making sure people understand the truth(s) about your show when they leave as opposed to just saying a disclaimer is directly applicable to informed consent in medicine.”

    Other topics of discussion included capturing magic on camera and how magicians—Mr. Jillette included—must consider their own eyesight when designing and performing shows.

    As the session closed, the chat box remained abuzz with praise for Mr. Jillette. Dr. Marmor summarized these comments, thanking Mr. Jillette for how “you’ve opened our eyes in some interesting ways ... or perhaps, better to say, our minds.” —Kanaga Rajan, PhD

    Watch the symposium in full. If you are registered for AAO 2020 Virtual, you have access to the archived presentations on the virtual meeting platform until Feb. 15, 2021. Log in to the virtual meeting platform: Next, from the Lobby screen, select “Sessions” from the top navigation; click “Agenda” in the drop-down menu; select “Sunday”; and then scroll down to “SYM28V: Michael F Marmor Lecture in Ophthalmology and the Arts.”

    Financial disclosures. Dr. Marmor: None.

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