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For this Penn-trained neuroscientist, the mind is what makes magic mesmerizing

"The fun and the mystery come from the fact that I don’t tell you where the boundary is between the real and the unreal," Daniel Roy says.

Daniel Roy, Penn graduate, is a professional magician.
Daniel Roy, Penn graduate, is a professional magician.Read morePhoto by John Costelllo

The audience at the “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” show was definitely jazzed by young magician Daniel Roy’s sleight-of-hand skills when he managed to guess the hidden faces of playing cards using just his senses of sight, touch, and hearing. When he then nailed the eight of spades using — allegedly — only his sense of smell, the audience hooted and applauded louder still.

But when Roy announced he was going to guess a card based on his sense of taste, a flutter of watchful apprehension went through the crowd. Roy asked his assistant from the audience to tear a tiny piece off one of the cards and give it to him to chow down.

“No matter how many times I do this,” said Roy, after several chews, “I will never forget how much I hate the taste of the seven of spades.”

With that, the assistant revealed the card: the seven of spades. The audience went wild.

But Daniel Roy, 24, a 2020 University of Pennsylvania neurobiology graduate, makes no claims to be a real-life Harry Potter. His magic is all about science — sleight of hand and sleight of mind. Not only can the hand be quicker than the eye, but psychology can be used to trick the mind about what it sees and what it does not.

“I tell my audiences, ‘Some of what you’re going to see is real and some is unreal, and I don’t claim for a second to have any magical, psychic powers,’” said Roy, who hails from San Francisco. “The fun and the mystery come from the fact that I don’t tell you where the boundary is between the real and the unreal. That’s something you get to decide for yourself.”

His magic career is in its early stages but is already quite promising. In addition to performing on the well-known Penn and Teller show, Roy has done his neuroscience-enhanced magic for audiences at Hollywood’s Magic Castle and the Chicago Magic Lounge. While at Penn, he was a frequent performer at the Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater in Huntingdon Valley and, for two years, was president of the Penn Illusionist Club, which promotes the cultivation of magic skills as an art.

Back home on the West Coast for now to due to the pandemic, Roy is doing virtual performances for corporate clients and will be performing online for, among others, the Smoke and Mirrors Magic Theater in December and January. He is also giving virtual magic lessons and working on an instruction book of his original magic routines. When COVID-19 restrictions loosen, he plans to resume performing in-person shows in the Philadelphia area.

Roy’s mentor, Darwin Ortiz, a magician and sleight-of-hand expert, said his student’s abilities are unusual for someone his age.

“I’m tempted to say that Daniel’s technical skill at sleight of hand is rare for someone so young. But the fact is it’s rare for a magician of any age,” Ortiz said. “Perhaps in part because of my influence, he has made a specialty of the methods used by card cheats. This is widely recognized as the most difficult branch of card manipulation, and Daniel excels at it.”

In 2019, Roy won the prestigious Close-Up Magician of the Year award from the Milbourne Christopher Foundation, which annually recognizes excellence in the magic arts. Claiming the honor was no small feat for someone his age.

Roy’s fascination with magic began at the tender of 10. He was taking part in a fund-raiser for his former preschool, and he was assigned to an activity station that had a mechanical bull. It wasn’t getting many takers, so to pass the time, the bull’s operator started doing card tricks.

“I was just entranced,” Roy said. “I think what I loved so much about it is that whenever I’d seen magic before, it was always on stage or far away. I could think, well, maybe, it’s a special prop or I just couldn’t see that well. But this was right in front of my face. It was a really visceral experience of wonder. There was no intellectual or conceptual barrier between me and this incredible, impossible thing that was happening.”

After that, Roy found a local magic shop owned by a knowledgeable magician who become one of his mentors. He bought an adult-level book on sleight of hand with cards and started teaching himself.

“I’ve been passionately obsessed since then,” he said.

Cards and science, it turns out, are both in his family tree.

A great-grandfather working on the Great Northern Railroad around the turn of the century won a restaurant in Wolf Point, Mont., in a game of poker. The family runs a restaurant in Wolf Point this day.

And science — medicine and engineering — runs on both sides of his family.

“They never pressured me to go into science, but that’s how I found my way,” Roy said.

When he started at Penn, he didn’t intend to become a professional magician; he thought he would go into scientific research. But then he started doing magic at the Smoke and Mirrors and at other venues and fell in love with performing.

He also saw, more and more, how what he was studying in class figured into the magic he performed.

“I’d become fascinated by the sleight-of-hand techniques and the psychology that card cheats used throughout the ages,” Roy said. "As I was learning those techniques and incorporating them into my performances, I started wondering, ‘OK, that’s all great, but why does that work?’ And the answer, of course, is neuroscience.

“It turns out these card cheats of old were using neuroscientific principles to deceive their unlucky opponents,” he said. “They just didn’t know it yet.”

Cards got Roy into magic, and he found that tricks with them could succeed on the principles of both sleight of hand and sleight of mind. For example, he said, there is the phenomenon of misdirection. If someone is focused on a deck of cards, for example, and someone else asks them an unrelated question about him or herself, the person’s attention will turn inward for just an instant as he or she thinks of an answer, away from the cards, without them even realizing it. But that instant is just long enough for a magician to do his “magic” undetected.

Not all magic using sleight of mind require props like cards. Roy has started to venture into performing tricks that play on a person’s memory or cognition alone to astound them.

At 24, Roy has plenty of time build on his magic-making craft. If he doesn’t find success in the field, well, he still has the whole neurobiology thing to fall back on. For now, he’s looking forward to the day when he can return to live performances and show off the additions to his science-informed magical repertoire.

In the end, said Roy, what he does is really about communication.

“Magic is ultimately an expression of the human capacity to engage in stories,” he said. “I’m telling you a story that only exists in a fictional, imaginary reality, as opposed to our everyday, objective reality. I am getting you to buy into a story so much so that for a moment you forget that objective reality exists. But although I’m tricking you, it’s not a nefarious thing. It’s a wonder-inducing celebration of what makes humans unique.”