Eric Mead: How Do Magicians Manufacture Reality? The power of the placebo has been consistently proven in medicine. Magician Eric Mead extends that idea to magic, pulling off a gruesome trick that's so convincing, you'll cringe.

Eric Mead: How Do Magicians Manufacture Reality?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Do you think you're a good liar?

ERIC MEAD: I'm a great liar.

RAZ: This is Eric Mead and he's a magician.

MEAD: The most important skill of good magic is not sleight-of-hand or misdirection, it is the ability to lie convincingly.

RAZ: I mean, your entire career is I guess you could say it's, like, it's based on deception, right? Like, on deceiving people?

MEAD: Yes, that's true. And built into that is a study of basically how to convince people of things that are not true.

RAZ: And it turns out that the kind of deceptions and magic may not all be all that different from everyday deceptions and things like medicine, for example. As Eric explained on the TED Stage, he actually thinks that magic has a lot in common with the placebo effect.


MEAD: I read a study a year or so ago that really blew my mind wide open. I'm not a doctor or researcher, so this to me was an astonishing thing. Turns out that if you administer a placebo in the form of a white pill that's like aspirin shaped, it's just a round white pill, it has some certain measurable effect. But if you change the form that you give the placebo in like, you make a smaller pill and color it blue and stamp a letter into it, it is actually measurably more effective. If you have capsules they're more effective than tablets in any form. And if you want the ultimate in placebo, you go to the needle, right, a syringe with some inert something and you inject this into a patient - well this is such a powerful image in their mind that I wanted to see if I could take that idea and apply it to a magic trick and take something that is obviously a fake trick and make it seem real.

MEAD: And we know from that study that when you want reality you go to the needle.

RAZ: Ok. So let me just interrupt for a sec because right at this point on the TED Stage, Eric, you actually walk over to your bag and you take out this giant needle.

MEAD: That's right so now I go over and I pick up a long and very long like a seven or eight inch hat pin. And I sterilize it, I roll back my sleeve, and I sterilize the skin of my forearm. And I say that what I'm going to do is push the needle through my flesh.


MEAD: And run this needle through to the other side.

And I turned towards the audience and I start at the bottom of my forearm as if I'm going to push it in and people start to turn away and look away. So I say let me just hide this first part from you and I turn the back of my arm towards them and now...


MEAD: So here's what happens. Right here at the beginning of my flesh.

I push very slowly the pin up into the flesh of my arm, they can't quite see this.


MEAD: Through my skin a tiny bit.

And then I move it back and forth as if I'm working it through the muscles and then it emerges from the top of my forearm


MEAD: Out the other side like this. I know what people think when they see this - they go, well he was certainly not dumb enough to stab himself through the skin to entertain us for a few minutes.

And what I'm doing is I'm slowly building levels of conviction. So at this point, they think well, it's not really through his arm, we're not sure.


MEAD: So let me give you a little peak. How's that look out there? Pretty good?


MEAD: Yeah I know. And they see that the needle really has gone into the lower part of my forearm through two or three inches of my flesh and meat.


MEAD: Let me give you a good close look at this. That really is my skin.

And now I grab hold of the bottom part of the needle and I begin to move it back and forth.


MEAD: And I can twist that around. I'm sorry. If you're getting queasy, look away.

And then I say, I don't remember the exact line.


MEAD: Well, yeah that looks kind of neat. Some sort of effect there. But if it were real he would be bleeding. Let me work up some blood for you.

And so now I open and close my fist. As if I were squeezing hard a tennis ball or something and out of both the bottom and the top where the needle is going in and coming out blood begins to trickle and drip down onto the stage. And that's the moment where really for a magician this is a great moment because now people are freaked. (Laughing.)

RAZ: It is unbelievable. I mean, that was real. You put that hat pin through your arm.

MEAD: It certainly is a very convincing illusion, yes.

RAZ: So that was not blood?

MEAD: No. It was not my blood. (Laughing).

RAZ: So, how'd you do it?

MEAD: Well I don't like to talk about how magic tricks work in public. I hope you're not that offended by this.

RAZ: It's just the two of us. There's nobody else listening - it's just you and me.

MEAD: Yes, yes of course I know. But even with just you I really think that my friend Michael Weber has the best way of saying it. And he says, we don't keep magic secrets from you we keep them for you.

RAZ: Yeah. It's really interesting because when you go see a magician like intellectually we know that, that it's an illusion that it isn't real and part of us I guess we sort of suspend that skepticism, right? We sort of suspended that disbelief because we want to be deceived. We want to believe that magic happened.

MEAD: You know, the willing suspension of disbelief is a theater term for well, you know, the classic example is Peter Pan - where you can see the wires and Peter flies around the stage and because you're in the - involved in this theatrical experience and you're caught up in the story and you willingly suspend your disbelief. And basically you use your imagination to erase the wires or at least pretended they're not there and Peter is flying. But if you went to see a magic show and the magician made a woman float on the stage and you could see the wires you will not willingly suspend your disbelief - you will say this is a lousy magic show. So the magician does not want the willing suspension of disbelief. The magician wants you to bring all of your critical faculties and your experience and intelligence to bear and yet to still be taken in by the illusion completely to the point where you're overwhelmed by the conclusion that what you're seeing is impossible.

RAZ: That's the thing about the deception of magic is that there's a kind of a wonder in that deception. Like you experience this wonder, because you're being deceived, but in a way that is meant to take you to that place. It's meant to give you that experience.

MEAD: While the latter think about the way I think most assistants think about it deception is not a point deception is one of the tools we use right and the point of magic is to evoke from you this feeling of deep wonder of astonishment of being overwhelmed by something that is impossible.

RAZ: That's the thing about the deception of magic. It's that there's a kind of a wonder in that deception. Like, you experience this wonder because, because you're being deceived but in a way that is meant to take you to that place. It's meant to give you that experience.

MEAD: Well, the way I think about it, the way I think most magicians think about it - deception is not the point. Deception is one of the tools we use. Right? And the point of magic is to evoke from you this feeling of, of deep wonder, of astonishment, of being overwhelmed by something that is impossible.

RAZ: Eric Mead is a magician who will deceive you and make you believe. You can check out his full talk at Thanks for listening to our show this week about lies, deception and why we believe them. If you missed any of it, or you want hear more, or you want to find out more about who was on it check out You can also find many, many more TED talks at And you can download this show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.