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The Magic Cube

by Michael Shermer, Jan 20 2009

Readers of will immediately suspect something is up when I ask you to watch a video and tell me if you think I have ESP or not. Of course I don’t believe in ESP and most of you probably do not either. However, when you see this video consider that it might be something related to ESP that is not, in fact, at all paranormal. That is synesthesia.

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense modality produces a sensation in a different sense modality, for example, touching something and sensing a color. Go ahead, watch this video, and tell me if you think I have synesthesia.

Did you figure it out yet? This video was produced and edited by the amazing Josh Timonen, who produced the other videos in this series on aliens and spoon bending, and he also produced the explanation of the mystery, which we will reveal tomorrow. (We won’t make you wait a week between blog posts for the reveal.) But in the meantime, we would be interested in what you think the solution might be. If you have seen this before and know the explanation, please don’t post it.

What I’m really interested in here is how people think about such problems. Give me your thoughts.

114 Responses to “The Magic Cube”

  1. I’d say its something to do with the shape of the red box…. like the cube only fits one way, or the slightly different shape of the box allows it to rattle or move to give it away.

  2. Steve Norley says:

    I reckon he took the lid off the box behind his back (and replaced it on the bottom of the box) so that he could actually see the cube while pretending to ‘feel’ the colour.


  3. Patrick says:

    Steve, you’re right.

  4. Martin says:

    Yep, the second answer. Looks like a bit of slight of hand to me. Shermer, you trickster you.

  5. Malte says:

    There is another application for this principle, that can be shown as a magic trick. The same sort of box (only see-through) is wrapped with two rubber bands. The magician then taps the bottom of the box onto a red ball that just fits into the box and suddenly the ball is inside of the box, even though the lid was on top and could not have been removed that quickly due to the rubber bands. It’s a nice effect that always gets good reactions.

  6. moonflake says:

    I agree that it looks like SteveN’s answer may be correct.

    However, since we are looking at different possible ways to explain this trick, there is another method that requires no prestidigitation at all – he simply lied about not colluding with the assistant.

    Another way would be to hide a small monitor behind his back on the shelf that gets a signal from the camera, so when the assistant shows the dot to the camera, even though his back is turned he clearly sees what she has picked. He would be easily able to block a small monitor with his body.

  7. Wrysmile says:

    Yep I reckon Steve got it stop the Video at 1:39 and you can see the slight of hand, can’t see any other reason for holding the box in such a peculiar manner

  8. Anonymousse says:

    After all, if Shermer could do what he claimed he did, he could have done it blind folded.

    Are we ruling out the possibility that he had outside help? If not from the assistant then from someone behind the camera giving hand signals or holding up a card or the like? I’ve seen variations on such a trick before.

    Then again, if that was the case, then why use a box at all? And why place it in front of his body before verbally revealing the color?

  9. LovleAnjel says:

    This doesn’t even require synesthesia, the different colors could have had different textures. All he would have to do was pop the top off while it was behind his back and test the texture with a fingertip.

  10. mike says:

    I’m dumbfounded as to why synesthesia is claimed to be involved. Do paranormal claims sometimes invoke synesthesia as a mechanism? That’s absurd! In synesthesia, for example an object’s texture will be associated with a totally arbitrary color, regardless of the actual color of the object. It doesn’t mean you sense that actual color of the object without seeing it. Please tell me no paranormalist misinterprets synesthesia in such a ridiculous way.

  11. Mastriani says:


    It would appear that Steven has the logical answer. Admittedly, there is no familiarity with synesthesia, but slight of hand/shape is the more obvious conclusion.

  12. JonA says:

    I agree with SteveN, but another explanation could be that there’s a hole in the bottom of the box, and if he can see the opposite colour there, he knows the colour on top. i.e. if black is on the bottom, then yellow must be on top.

    But using Occam’s Razor, I’d side with SteveN since it wouldn’t require the assumption that the assistant ignored this obvious feature of the box.

  13. Susan B. says:

    Mike beat me to it–even if synesthesia were involved, the color associated with a certain texture has nothing at all to do with the actual color that texture is painted. The mention of synesthesia here is for no other reason than to confuse things.

  14. gerryfromktown says:

    Michael Shermer is interested in how we think about this. Personally, I think about this as most of the above do:

    1. Its not supernatural
    2. Its not likely to be outright fraud (no textures, or help from his confederate, or hidden video cameras). He doesn’t want to hear howls of outrage when he reveals!
    3. It likely has something to do with the brief concealment.
    4. His hint tells us that the orientation of the box cannot be discerned externally.
    5. His hint also means that the box would not change its external appearance if the top were moved to the bottom, and the top were concealed.
    6. There is obvious slight of hand as he removes the top.

    Actually, its too bad the apparent right answer appeared so quickly here.

    Can I ask others – what do you prefer? Truly ingenious tricks that are revealed later? Or, tricks that are never revealed, baffling you forever? I know magicians never reveal, but not knowing the solution drives me so crazy I don’t enjoy magic shows, especially if the illusions are very, very good. Do I share this with other skeptics? Or, perhaps you are all such clever skeptics that you actually solve the tricks yourselves (or, at least you think you do)?

    As an aside, there are several Chris Angel tricks circulating on the internet in which outright fraud is clearly part of the trick (for one thing, jump cuts in the videos are clearly present even when he claims there are none).

  15. fluffy says:

    My guess is that the cube has a weight that’s offset from the center in different amounts along each axis, which allows him to feel where the center of gravity is, and based on that he knows which way it’s facing. Steve’s explanation makes more sense.

  16. Mike says:

    How about if the internal die is not quite square and therefore does not fit into the external cube snugly. By shaking the box and feeling the rattle you could determine the orientation of the die and knowing the order in which colours are on the faces of the cube you could determine the colour.

    In fact they are probably many different ways to do this trick but the easiest is likely to be the answer

  17. Max says:

    If the magician could announce the color with the box behind his back, then he probably would, because it would be more impressive.

  18. I saw this trick a long time ago so after a few minutes i remembered. Nice one!

    One quick piece of feedback if I may: These videos like the spoon bending etc are pretty cool. However, I’m a little concerned that you are focusing too much on “obviously fake” topics that most people would be skeptical about: magic tricks. In some sense I see the real value of the Skeptic society as uncovering COMMON misconceptions. Beliefs that many (if not most) people have which are utterly false – astrology, god, you’ll get a cold if you go outside with wet hair. To me this is the best bang for your buck (and interestingly will probably get you the most publicity) since you’re telling a large number of people they’re wrong instead of a fringe element who nobody believed anyway.

    Anyway, great work – I pray (joking) they will let you really explore the god delusion in your new TV program. If they do it might be a first in the USA!

  19. Anonymous Coward says:

    I don’t know how it’s done, but I think I could muze about how I could do it, while still taking the hint into account. The hint suggests some geometrical property, so let’s start with that.
    Depending on how you take the hint, it might mean that only the outside box is really a cube, and the inner not quite a cube. It may have one slightly oblique face, for example. If this is true then it should be possible to feel for seams. Unfortunately that requires you to open the box.
    Or we could take it to mean that both are in fact cubes. Maybe one of the faces is slightly concave and the box a little flexible. It would have to be asymmetrically concave and require a well developped fingerspitzengefühl, but it could be. But then the inner cube would still not quite be a cube.
    So for maximum elegance, or at least maximum compliance with the hint given, so that’s where I guess I must be settling down, I would weight the cube on one or more sides in such a way that the center of mass is located subtly off-centre near one of the sides. Now, you’d think she should have noticed that, but in my experience people tend not to as long as the effect is subtle enough.
    Of course if you get really creative, you can use electrical devices to make a nearly undetectable cheating cube, but I’m quite sure that isn’t what he did.

  20. Mark Edward says:

    Hate to play Devil’s Advocate here, but I have to agreee with StartBreakingFree. Is the Skeptologists to be a constant stream of magic trick revealers? To me that’s just wimpy. I find this annoying. There is no special or new scientific inquiry involved in the revelation of magic tricks that can be bought in any magic store or as part of a child’s magic set. This has all been done before, breaks no new ground and places us on par with The Masked Magician. For my buck, this is not a good place to start a new era of skeptical thinking and a very tenuous slope to ascend with mentalists, magicians and anyone else (like the company or owner of the rights to the trick, …no matter how old) who makes a living from whatever meager proceeds come from the sale of such secrets. Believe me, I know of what I’m speaking. I have faced the horrific blast of the angry cyber-mobs who object to this stuff and it won’t help sell this show if we continue to sink to that level. There’s so much more truly malicious fraud, pseudo-science and mumbo-jumbo going on out there, it seems a shame to waste any more time on trickery. BTW: If you want to see synesthesia performed with the backstory of a “feeling of colors” test performed before the Skeptics Society at Cal Tech, check out the Society recording lecture, “The Psychology of the Psychic and the Believer.”

  21. tudza says:

    I used to do this trick when I was 10. In fact, I only watched because I was hoping the guy would do the trick better than I did, but no, he did the lid switch behind his back.

    I agree that being magic trick debunkers is not a good course. It serves as a good starter, but maybe we should pick just one good example and have done with it.

  22. Jez says:

    I’d agree with Steve N at comment 2 – except that Michael probably put the lid on one side so he could see most of the colour spot while he was holding it up to camera, but with no danger of the cube falling out & also make it easier to do the sleight-of-hand lid removal at the end

  23. Mark Edward: “Hate to play Devil’s Advocate here…”

    HEY. This is my corner! Find your own!

  24. I recall a version of this trick when I was in third grade: I’d ask for someone to choose a crayon and hand it to me behind my back. I’d use a fingernail to scrape a sample, then look at it while pretending to use ESP to figure it out.

  25. PaulJ says:

    I had to watch the video twice, but the clue about the box being the same size on all sides gave it away. Also, the stuff about textures, synesthesia, etc, was just misdirection. I knew the answer would be something really simple, and moving the lid to another side was really simple (and would have to be done out of sight).

  26. Paul S says:

    My guess is that the cube is weighted on one side. The performer can hold the box with two fingers placed in the center of opposite faces. Gravity will produce a torque to pull the weight down, revealing the orientation of the cube inside.

  27. Anonymous says:

    After the first watch I thought so too, but no. Replay the video several times with the sound off, and you’ll see it happening right in front of your eyes. It’s always the simple things that escape you. You’d think that trick would be much more noticable so I didn’t even think about the possibility, but sleight of hand, a favourable perspective and YouTube’s resolution make it quite unnoticable.

  28. Mattias says:

    Dude, you’re looking right at it… took me a few seconds but I’m sure you took the lid of that thing and is staring at the color while you are talking…. nice trick though.

    *sorry if I ruined it for anyone else*


  29. Ian says:

    I love these videos, I hope you continue to make them, I get excited whenever I get email from eskeptic now!

  30. D.J. Grothe says:

    As a professional magician and mentalist and also as a professional skeptic, I want to chime in and agree with a couple others who object to the exposure of a magic trick for “critical thinking purposes.” Legerdemain and conjuring is by definition secret knowledge. Secrets are protected because without them, magic would be little more than base puzzles (and unfortunately often is just that, anyway). If no effort is required to learn the art of magic, it ceases being an art and becomes just a trifling collection of puzzles.

    Revealing how a magic trick is done to people who have no interest in the art of magic in no way encourages critical thinking. It requires no effort to learn. Long debates in the magic community have ensued exactly on this point: when, if ever, is public exposure OK. I don’t think it is ever OK, except in the case of measurable harm resulting from secrets being kept (example: ) No one is being harmed by avoiding public exposure of this simple trick, and so I object to its exposure, even as simple as it is.

    I think that just as much — if not more — could be taught about the psychology of belief, how easy it is to be fooled, the nature of deception and self-deception, and the propensity of the mind to play tricks on us, without revealing the secret to this magic trick, a version of which professional magicians use to this day.

    To take a magic trick, reveal it to a non-magician audience, and to call that “skepticism” is what increasingly gives organized skepticism a bad name in the magic community, even when it is a trick that one might consider very basic.

  31. Morgan says:

    Easy. Behind his back he took the lid off, rotated the box downwards 90 degrees so that the opening was pointing away from his body and replaced the lid on top. Then when he was holding it in front of his face again he could easily look at the colour while to us it looks like the box is unchanged. Basically same as other posts above.

  32. Lukasz Jezierski says:

    The cube isn’t really a cube, but its shape is a little different on each side.

  33. Ashley says:

    Watch the video at 1.39 to 1.41 very carefully and Steve N’s explanation is revealed.

  34. Ex-drone says:

    Magicians can’t have it both ways. They can’t, on the one hand, criticize scientists as skeptics for not being wise to the sleight-of-hand explanation for some extraordinary claims and then, on the other hand, complain when skeptic advocates like Michael take these opportunities to remind us that subterfuge is a viable option to consider. I don’t think the magic community is at risk of losing their mystique or running out of tricks due to a few reveals.

    In reality, we all know that the inner box was existing as a superposition of all the colour states, and when Michael opened the box, the wave function collapsed to the yellow state.

  35. Michael Lange says:

    Between frames 1:38 and 1:42 you can see his slight of hand. When he put the box behind his back he must have moved the lid to one of the sides of the box. That’s why he said that it matters that the box is a cube. I.e., the lid will fit on any side. This when we see the box in front of him again, he’s actually looking right at the color. Then with a slight of hand, he pretends to pull the lid from the top of the box. For me, the cube hint he gave sealed the deal.

    Great job!

  36. JasonBBG says:

    This quote from the preceding article:

    “If you have seen this before and know the explanation, please don’t post it.”

    I suppose there is the possibility that Michael Shermer didn’t clarify this desire explicitly, allowing some of you to take the AND condition literally in the sentence, “if you have seen this before AND know the explanation, please don’t post it”.

    Because of that wording, whilst many of you may not have actually seen the trick before but DID know the answer, you applied the logic that you were able to post your answer. Common sense of course tells you that Michael Shermer’s intentions were that people DIDN’T post their answers. In which case the wording should have been along the lines of, “whether you have seen this before or not, if you know the explanation, please don’t post it”

    Some of you may be remarking to yourself, “here’s someone with too much time on their hands!”. But I would say to you, “what price clarity?”. Keep up the good work.


  37. AGrey says:

    I am in complete agreement with StartBreakingFree and Mark Edward. We’ve seen James Randi bend spoons, among other things. The point has been made. I can’t understand why Shermer feels the need to rehash tricks that we can find thousands of examples of on YouTube. This box trick is a simple gimick, and it’s as old as the hills. I’m 41, and I first saw this trick performed by a family friend when I was about 8. Tricks are cool, but there are a number of other issues at hand when it comes to irrational belief and the future of skepticism.

  38. Sara Smith says:

    Dear Michael,

    Magic is all about fooling people’s senses and it all depends on how fast you are. In around 141 Michael picks under the box and I believe he changed the top when he took the box behind his back. However, he kept his audience busy by talking to them and …..


  39. Chris says:

    Is Shermer claiming that both ESP and synesthesia are imaginary or just misdirecting you to falsly explain a child’s magic trick? The trick is simple, but his point on synesthesia is not understood by me.

  40. tim says:

    many of the above suggestions would fail under any kind of “post demonstration” scrutiny (hole in the box, weighted die, obvious textures, etc.). This looks like a slight of hand (move/remove the lid, look at color), and apparently it was well done to drive the suggestions of hidden cameras, collusion, etc.

  41. Steven says:

    I used to SELL this trick when I worked at a magic shop.

    I’m fascinated that the correct answer is given 3 or 4 times (when the box is behind his back, he moves the lid to one of the “sides” so that he can hold the box in front of his face and stare RIGHT AT the cube, with the lid *seemingly* on top, and with the lid holding the cube in the box), but people still offer other, more complicated answers.

    Regarding giving away the secrets of magic tricks:

    a) The number of people who will see this video and learn the “secret” will not make a lick of difference in the grand scheme of “protecting the secrets of magic.”

    b) Any magician who uses this trick as part of his act… needs a new act (or, even better, needs to use this same principle in a way that even people who’ve seen this video wouldn’t recognize it as the same trick!)

  42. Wouter says:

    Obviously, mr. Shermes does have special powers with which he can extrasensorily discern the color inside the box. He is apparantly unware of his gift.

  43. Larry Jones says:

    I can’t find a page with a list of your videos. Please send me a link. Thanks.

  44. M Henri Day says:

    After studying the video from approx 1:34 and forward, I came to the conclusion that a solution similar to Steve N’s, in which the lid is removed and placed elsewhere on the box, which allows Michael to see the coloured surface inside (nb, while being careful not to show that surface to the camera), is the relevant one here. After Michael brings the box back from behind his back, we are first shown the the red surface of the lid, which Michael then removes while twisting the cube around to reveal the opening with the yellow surface inside….


  45. Scott says:

    When behind his back, the lid is removed and placed on one of the other sides of the box, hence the reason he mentioned the shape is important. When the box is brought back to the front the lid of the box is now on one of the sides, and the inside of the box is open to the magician. He looks down briefly to view the color. He looks down just once to help disguise the secret. He removes the “top” and cube under cover of his hands so as to not give away the fact that the lid is no longer on the top of the box.

    I think the number of people who believe a parlor trick to be real magic is quite small and perhaps over-inflated by a society such as this. As many times as I performed tricks in the past, never once did someone believe it to be genuine magic. Magic has its place — it’s called entertainment. Are we debunking entertainment?

  46. Geoff Fridd says:

    He didn’t need to open the box, just tilt the lid slightly so that he could see the color through the open crack. This could easily be done with one hand while he floats around the other hand near his eyes so that you are looking there and not at his left hand.

  47. Jann says:

    Synesthesia? I think not. Even I, who am not a practitioner of parlour tricks, could see it was just that. Also, Michael, if you are going to practice slight (sp?) of hand,the key word here being “practice”, don’t allow a video to be made until you are practiced at it!
    Why are you wasting our time on this kind of nonsense? Have you at the Society run out of things about which to be sceptical? As a new member I am worried and now, sceptical!

  48. D.J. Grothe says:

    To Steven: I have sold hundreds of this exact trick while working at a magic store as a teenager, and have used it many times in the years since at magic classes and summer camps. But the point is that it was sold to and taught to people who were interested in magic — in learning magic and performing magic. It wasnt needlessly exposed to passers by who had no real interest in the art, who just wanted to know “the secret.” Likewise, magic should not be exposed to dilettante or armchair skeptics for the sake of an skeptical object lesson. You should recognize that Randi *never* exposes the secrets of magic to scientists or to the public in the hope that they will be wary of, say, psychic claims. Instead, he duplicates the exact supposed psychic feats, which he argues should encourage the gullible scientists and public to realize that if a magician can duplicate such psychic feats, there are other, more rational, explanations than the supernatural. Moreover, he engages scientists, the public, and the skeptical community because harm results from believing such supernatural or paranormal claims. No one is harmed, however, by keeping the secret to this simple trick a secret. I’d argue that exposing it hurts magic and actually may hurt skepticism — at least doesn’t help it . (I admit that I don’t think it matters all that much if a handful of skeptics believe learning the secret to this trick somehow makes them experts in magic or skepticism, or even if they go out and buy it and try to perform it, albeit badly. What I am most concerned about is the precedent this sets for a leader in the skeptical movement to even begin exposing magic tricks for so-called skeptical purposes. When would you start objecting: if Shermer started to expose Derren Brown’s or P&T’s or Dunninger’s or Kreskin’s or Uri Geller’s methods, most of which are readily available in the magic community?).

    As for magicians who perform this (or a version of this) trick even today: I know at least two prominent, successful and well-known magicians who perform it, albeit much more effectively than Shermer does in this video. Granted, if every magician performed magic as poorly as Shemer does here, you could blame them for exposing it themselves through poor performance. But when you see even this simple trick performed in the hands of a master of the art of magic, someone who applies his or her years of study of the psychology of the deceptive arts and of theater, of misdirection and scripting and emotion, you would be persuaded that even this trick may belong in a professional repertoire. This and other very basic tricks sold over the counter at any magic store turns into a work of art in the hands of the right performer, a good magician. And Shermer is no good magician (nor does he claim to be, nor need to be in order to effectively advance skepticism).

    In this instance, Shermer is just someone who needlessly exposes magic, supposedly for the sake of skepticism. Doing so turns some in the magic community, who I think should naturally be our allies in the skeptical movement, into bigtime skeptics of skepticism. I work very hard to involve increasing numbers of professional magicians in the skeptical movement, and time and again, I am met with challenges that skeptics needlessly expose magic, which is something magicians are rightfully and collectively very concerned about. Again, there are better ways to advance skepticism than by exposing magic tricks, no matter how simple they are.

  49. Guy Townsend says:

    It’s “sleight” of hand, not “slight” of hand. And enough of this exposure, already.

  50. Will Cooper says:

    Yes, answer number 2 is correct. If one looks closely, it’s possible to detect that Michael took the lid off the bottom of the cube when he pretends to remove it from the top. He holds the box up at nearly eye level, so that he can perceive the color without averting his eyes. It’s a sleight of hand trick.

  51. Jann says:

    To Mr Townsend, thank you for the spelling info. I typed “sleight” but somehow it just didn’t “look right”,. if you know what I mean. So, thanks.

  52. Rex Graves says:

    My guess is that Michael already knew which colors were opposite from each other.

  53. Jay Zentko says:

    I agree with D.J. Groethe (48) and others. I don’t see how exposing this magic trick is advancing the purposes of the skeptic. The fact that it is an old, simple trick doesn’t matter. One of my favorite tricks is one I got from a child’s magic set. I’ve amazed and entertained hundreds of people with this simple trick. I’ve seen David Copperfield use a trick I learned from a child’s magic book. Most new magic is based on classic principles taken in a new direction.

    If people were using this magic trick to defraud, I could see the purpose of educating the masses in it’s use. But that is not the case with this trick.

  54. People (and I know a few) who have synesthesia don’t “read” colors by touch. They conflate colors and sounds, or colors and numbers. for example, someone who has synesthesia “senses” that specific musical tones possess a specific color. this person literally “sees” a color when he hears a particular tone. Many artists, including Kandinsky, created paintings from this concept. He could “paint” music. nice. There was a wonderful show at MOCA a few years ago that spotlighted this kind of artwork. anyway, it is the variations that are the interesting point. Even if people could perceive color through touch, they would perceive different colors. They wouldn’t agree. The answer is dependent upon perception, and the perceptions vary with the individual synesthete. There is no correct answer.

  55. SteveN says:

    D.J. Grothe said: “You should recognize that Randi *never* exposes the secrets of magic to scientists or to the public in the hope that they will be wary of, say, psychic claims.”


    “When would you start objecting: if Shermer started to expose Derren Brown’s or P&T’s or Dunninger’s or Kreskin’s or Uri Geller’s methods, most of which are readily available in the magic community?”

    Although I agree with almost everything you said, D.J., I’m 99% sure that I have seen/heard/read Randi expose Geller’s spoon bending trick, his moving pencil trick and his moving compass trick.


    P.S. To avoid confusion, I should perhaps say that I am the ‘SteveN’ of post 2, not the ‘Steven’ to whom you were replying in your post #48.
    P.P.S. I’m a (very) long-time listener of ‘Point of Inquiry': keep up the good work!

  56. It needn’t come from Shermer, but I eagerly await skeptical exposure of a particularly nasty scam perpetrated almost exclusively on children, the old “I’ve got your nose!” trick.

  57. tcb says:

    In this video he’s doing the swap-the-top method, but it would also have been “fair” to set it up with the assistant beforehand. I remember seeing Randi yonks ago on the Tonight Show. When Johnny Carson asked how he did his “mind-reading feats” Randi answered something like, “I lie and cheat, of course.”

    You should recognize that Randi *never* exposes the secrets of magic

    Well, I suppose “lying and cheating” is a kind of exposition, but I’ve never heard him go beyond that :)

  58. dustinlull says:

    my guess is that when the box was behind his back, he removed the lid, and put the lid on the side of the box, which would only cover a little bit of the open side. He then held the open side in front of him and could see the color.

  59. Julio Alfaro says:

    LOL! Mike, you provided me with a great memory… I’ll get to that in a second…

    You said the solution has to do with the fact that it is a square shape inside the same shaped box. My guess then would be that the block with the colors is imperfect in measurement/”square”- on purpose. That way, which ever way the block is inserted into the box, it would make a distinct sound when rattled. You learn the sound each makes, and thus are able to “use ESP” to figure out which color is showing…

    Now, about the memory (and I hope I dont regret repeating this!!) When I was in my twenties, I worked with this pretty smoking hot babe…she often wore the style of pants that, when seated, tends to show off your underwear. Being a hottie, I always took notice… we became friends, and one day I told her that I had this ability to “feel” colors. She said “NO WAY!” I said “I can prove it. Let me touch your panties and I can tell you what color they are…” She fell for it! I got the color right. From that day on, she would often come into my office, put my hand up her skirt or down her pants and ask “So, what color today?” Having made sure to do a “fly by” past her desk when I arrived, I rarely ever got the color wrong…

    Ah, those were the days!! LOL!

  60. Greg says:

    I initially thought it might involve the use of a magnet, but if you watch the video slowly at the reveal you’ll notice that Michael pulls the “top” of the box off the side of the cube(he hides it well, but it is evident in slow motion), which means the yellow dot was exposed to him – but hidden from all other sides – while he was “guessing”.

    Good call SteveN

  61. Jerry Schwarz says:

    This is a reply to D.J. He writes “No one is harmed, however, by keeping the secret to this simple trick a secret. I‚Äôd argue that exposing it hurts magic and actually may hurt skepticism ‚Äî at least doesn‚Äôt help it”.

    As to whether magic is harmed, I think it is unclear. I suppose if people know some of the techniques it might hurt the magic business. Whether if magicians explained what they did during the performance it would make the performance more or less attractive to the audience depends on the audience. I don’t think there is any real evidence about this either way. And as a skeptic I think such claims need to be supported by evidence.

    As to whether what Shermer does (I’ve seen him reveal magic before) is good or bad for skeptics. I think it is good. Magicians frequently say that they need to be involved in examining paranormal claims. I agree with that, and I think it follows that “amateur skeptics” like myself (to use D.J’s term) should know as much as they can about about the techniques involved. A lot of my friends know I’m a skeptic and they ask me to explain some phenomena or event. The more I know about magic, the better I am at answering their questions. A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk by Jim Underdown on Bible miracles in which he showed how contemporary magicians duplicate walking of water. I think this was valuable information for the audience.

    Finally many simple tricks are used by scam artists to fleece the public. I think “three card monte” and “cup and balls” are used by scam artists on the streets of most major cities. I think skeptics should be exposing the techniques involved in these tricks to as wide an audience as possible.

    A few years ago I saw a documentary in which a major magician sat in a Las Vegas hotel room and got people to come in and bet on whether he could do things like guess their card. The only thing that surprised me about this is that he allowed the photography. I thought this was dispicable. I’m not naming the magician because I can’t locate the documentary. If any one can identify it please post here,

    To be honest, the above is colored by my distaste for magic performances. For several years I have actively avoided the magic acts that are so often the entertainment at skeptics meetings. I recognize that in this I seem to be practically unique. Skeptics seem to love the magic acts.

  62. Lance says:

    What a douch! It’s a little kids magic trick and you did it poorly. What does it prove? Because you can do a children’s magic trick (very poorly) then everyone else is doing the same magic trick?

    I can think of several other ways of doing the trick rather than just putting the box behind my back, lifting off the cover, replacing the cover so that the box is now open and then looking into the box as I place it in front of me. All of my versions are ‘normal’ too, that doesn’t prove that there isn’t someone out there who could do it by touch. I’m not sure what your point in life is.

  63. Exposing even simple slum magic tricks is not the answer, nor a good precedent to set. Instead, if you showed the trick with the claim that it demonstrates Synesthesia, and then ask your blog-ees to set up a double blind experiment with the box and/or cube that would challenge your claim to Synesthesia, no magic tricks need to be harmed or exposed to make the point and it would teach skeptics and the general public how to deal with those who prey and profit on human gullibility.

  64. Max says:

    Randi (and Shermer in a previous post) exposed Uri Geller’s spoon bending trick. What makes this trick any different from any other simple magic trick? Simply the fact that Geller denies that it’s a magic trick.

    Derren Brown and Penn & Teller expose their own tricks all the time.

    Exposing simple magic tricks is a good way to ease people into skepticism by showing them how easily they can be fooled, without threatening their cherished beliefs. Skeptics need reminders as well.

    I dunno, maybe if I were in the magic community, the defensive magicians wouldn’t sound like they got their panties in a bunch. If you want to see real secrets exposed, go to Wikileaks.

  65. nzmatt says:

    could of been a guess based on the assistants favorite color or several takes were done.

  66. doofus says:

    So let’s say it isn’t a trick, but actual Synesthesia.
    How could this demonstration work?

    Color is the perception of particular wavelengths of light (well, electromagnetic waves), either emitted or reflected.

    So, putting a reflective colored object (the cube) into an environment with no light (the box) the object would have no color. So if you really could “sense” color by touch, what the hell would you be sensing?
    Certainly not the reflected wavelengths, because there aren’t any.

    It would be analogous to saying you can smell sound. We put an mp3 player in a vacuum. We ask what instrument is playing and you stick your nose in the vacuum chamber.
    There would be no vibrations (sound), and therefore nothing to smell.

  67. Johnatl says:

    The key is in how the person is presenting themselves.
    If a person claims to be a magician, the audience knows they will be deceived, but only for their own entertainment. (Think “Harry Potter”.)
    If a person claims to be clairvoyant (et. al.), the audience will still be deceived, but not for their entertainment. (Think the bible.)
    I believe the purpose of these videos is to expose the clairvoyants for what they are, and to show how easy it is to deceive people.
    I would much rather see Penn & Teller than any of the magicians who don’t reveal their secrets.

    I think of these exposés as the dessert for the skeptic meal. A little light fair. No, you can’t live on pie, but a little does no harm. Sometimes when people see desserts in a shop’s window, they stop and take notice. “Come in, have a look around…”

    As for how the trick was done? Simple, there is a ferrite slug embedded in one wall of the outer cube. The inner cube holds a vibrator motor from a cell phone, a coil on the inside of each face of the cube, a battery, and a micro-controller. When the small cube is placed inside the larger cube, the micro-controller senses the change in inductance on one face. After an appropriate delay, it begins spelling the name of the color that is facing out, in Morse code, using the vibrator motor. No wait, he wouldn’t need to put it behind his back to move the lid… ah man, i could have sold that trick…

  68. Exétafus says:

    ha ha @ 34. Wave function collapsed and the cat is DEAD!

  69. Exétafus says:

    @48 You have a high opinion of such a trick? A trick. Go to a mirror and say these two words: “A TRICK”. Watch your mouth while you say them. For all of you who wonder why we ‘waste our time on this’ and other slights of hand, etc., remember that skepticism is about revealing, or trying to reveal the natural explanation. If you weren’t a skeptic or interested, you wouldn’t be /here/. “Magic” is not harmed by these little feats of engineering, except, I’ll agree, where Michael flubs and produces the effect (if at all) badly, any more than “Photography” is harmed by learning how it is done. The point of magic as such is the show. Knowing current events makes comedy funny.

    A TRICK. Now, as a skeptic, myself, I’m VERY interested in when people are fooled, especially by something as simple as this. He, most likely brought up synesthesia as a red herring (right, Michael?).

    Meanwhile, no need to get hostile, pedantic and/or paternalistic on the rest of us (which I admit I’m doing, but then I’m a big jerk — fortunately, I don’t care: not caring makes me free).

    Simple lesson: look for the most likely answer: in most cases, I tried to trick you. Since it holds for most cases, I argue it is important.
    PS: I like these little videos, they’re bite-sized.

  70. Exétafus says:

    @59 Lucky scoundrel you.

  71. Shahar Lubin says:

    I believe synesthesia was mentioned in order to make a point about pseudo science. The way scientific jargon is used to mask what at heart is(as many stated) basic simple tricks. Think of the misuse of Energy and Quantum.
    Scientific concepts taken just enough off to fool people without going far and letting them on.

  72. Stuey says:

    Ok assuming I’m thinking without reading all the reveals in the comments (Michael has not revealed it yet)

    1) It is not really a controlled environment so the cube statment could be a red herring, miror, monitor or assitant or shot heaps of times

    2) slight of hand, we loose sight of the cube, so there is potential for mischief.

    3) feeling colours, although it is possible to feel colours, visual stimuali is required first. synesthesia is apparently more of a wiring issue rather than a additional sense. PLus there are heaps of other colours in the room, and wouldn’t these block the signal.

  73. Bob says:

    I’m also a bit mystified with Michael’s use of the word synesthesia. Synesthesia is a real phenomenon, though significantly different than the way Michael abuses the term. I’m wondering if there are a large number of people abusing it in the same way, if he is just making an unfortunate choice in terms, or if he really misunderstands what real synesthesia is.

  74. Bob says:

    I’m even more mystified as V.S. Ramachandran gave a discussion at Beyond Belief 2.0 on synesthesia. Michael Shermer also spoke there, albeit on a different day, perhaps he didn’t stick around for Ramachandran’s discussion of it?

  75. Bill says:

    Stop trashing Shermer for revealing the trick! He hasn’t revealed anything (yet). The whole point of this is “how people think about such problems”, and not how the trick itself was done.

    These are my thoughts from *before* I read the posts and learned the (probable) answer: The fact that he handled the cube somewhat oddly, and it disappeared behind his back for a moment, were both dead giveaways that this was done by sleight-of-hand and deception. I also noticed that he glanced at the floor before doing his ESP hand-waving business, and suspect that had something to do with it. There are many ways this could have been done!

  76. Toe mirror! Toe mirror!

  77. Dave Hren says:

    When he puts the cube behind his back, he places the cap onto the SIDE of the cube. Then when he brings it back in front of him, he keeps the open side of the cube facing him. Revealing the color, with the cap still appearing to be on the “top” of the cube. He then obscures a little bit ti make it appear that he’s taking the cap off from the top of the cube.

  78. Dave Hren says:


  79. Petrucio says:

    the explanation of the mystery, which we will reveal tomorrow. (We won’t make you wait a week between blog posts for the reveal.)


  80. D.J. Grothe says:

    Jerry (#61): It has been a while since we last visited in San Fran, hope all’s been well. About the points you posted:

    First, exposing that simple trick in no way teaches the methods of examining paranormal claims or conducting skeptical investigations. To argue that it does is one of the problems I think often haunts the skeptical community and might opens up skepticism to the charge that it is closed-minded and arrogant. If someone thinks that knowing the secret to this or other tricks makes them authoritative experts on the methods that psychics or other paranormalists may use, not only are they mistaken, but they are in fact dangerously exposed to being fooled hard by other methods that they haven’t learned. Its what Jamy Ian Swiss calls being “half smart” — like when a cheating gambler learns that some mark at the table has been bragging about knowing one method of cheating, he knows not only which methods to avoid during the game, but how to better cheat the guy who has only a little knowledge. As Alexander Pope warns, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

    Second, Randi’s and others’ argument that scientists would do well to involve magicians in investigating some paranormal claimants stems from the fact that scientists may have often believed they are too smart to be deceived by simple charlatanry, and so a magician’s involvement protects against that. This is not to say the solution should be that every scientist investigating the paranormal, or that every armchair skeptic, needs to be told the secrets to a catalogue of magic tricks. Instead, he or she just needs to be humble enough to know how easy it is for nonmagicians — including scientists and skeptics — to be deceived by the simplest of tricks (when performed well).

    Third, it is true that some simple tricks are used to scam an unwary public, like the one I linked to in my first post above (#30), and like the ones you mentioned. But the solution to this unrelated problem is not for Michael Shermer, whom I consider a friend and whom I respect and admire, to reveal the secret to a different magic trick that is not used to scam a gullible public.

    Lastly, I’d say that I object less to people learning how this trick is done than I object to the circumstances in which this particular secret is being exposed. If people were learning this or other tricks because they were interested in learning the art of magic, let them learn it from an expert, one qualified to teach the all subtleties of deception. I think that learning it under these circumstances trivializes what can be a beautiful art form and turns it into something base and trifling, as I said in previous posts. I’d bet you a round of drinks next time I am in the Bay Area that one reason you don’t personally care much for magic is because you have seen maybe one too many performers do just that — trivialize magic —which I’d argue can be a performance art that raises the most profound questions in the minds of the audience, when done right. Here, it doesn’t raise any profound questions, and is only a trivial lesson in puzzle-solving, which could be accomplished with any number of other puzzles that don’t reveal the secrets to the magician’s art.

    There are other points to make, but this issue has been debated to death in the magic community, and I don’t have time nor lots of interest in fomenting a big kerfuffle about the issue on this blog.


  81. Randall says:

    I’m yet another respondent who learned about this trick when I was around 10 years old. As someone else noted, any magician using this trick as part of their act needs to get a new act, or disguise it heavily; no magic was harmed by this video. However, I also agree with those who hold that no skepticism was helped by this video either; the fact that kiddie-toy magic tricks work due to sleight of hand is rather well known. If Michael is trying to get us to think, it should be about something a bit more relevant to skepticism: the “choir” of frequent readers of this blog already know to examine claims critically, and one-off visitors passing through are likely to dismiss this as “just a magic trick” instead of seeing its relevance to claims in other fields.

  82. Jay Zentko says:

    In his introduction, Michael Shermer states, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and “Before you say something is ‘out of this world, make sure it’s not ‘in this world.'” He then illustrates these principles by making an extraordinary claim of “synethesia” and then demonstrating his “proof” (which is accomplished through trickery). The illustration is effective, so I guess I am backing off of my earlier objection to his exposing the trick.

  83. Deborah says:

    I hope D.J. (#80) will indulge one more comment on the kerfuffle about the tangential, yet important, question of whether exposing magic tricks furthers the skeptical dialogue and, even if it does, whether it undermines the art of magic. First, let me say I have immense immense respect for D.J. and am a huge fan of Point of Inquiry and am honored to contribute to any conversation he is in. Second, I am a sucker for magic and awestruck by it, so I’m not coming from the perspective of another poster who is not a magic fan.

    I think Shermer, as noted by post # 82, is using a simple, yet effective illustration to make several points, including that people can be fooled by even badly performed sleights of hand. Many people do not realize how easily they are fooled by simple tricks, so the exercise is worthwhile to raise their awareness to their own vulnerability. And, although some have expressed the view that the people who read this blog don’t need this point made for them, I may be wrong but, I think Shermer’s intended audience is not just the skeptics who read this blog, but the wider audience of people who may stumble on this on YouTube and/or are just beginning to think about skepticism, including teenagers. It is a short, engaging and effective (in part because it is interactive) way to reach such a wider audience of people, many of whom have limited attention spans.

    With respect to undermining the art of magic and getting sideways with magicians, I think looking at the big picture is important. If Shermer makes a habit out of revealing scads of magic’s secrets to promote skepticism, yes, that would be a problem. It, however, is one rather simple, as people describe it, “kids magic trick.” I don’t think there is a danger the very limited use of the reveal with such simple tricks will undermine the art of magic the way, for example, the network television show “Magic’s Biggest Secrets” does. So, it really is a weighing: Does it help make a point to a wider audience? I think arguably it does in this media saturated world where getting the audience’s attention is pretty challenging. Does it undermine the art of magic? On balance not in any appreciable way. Should Shermer be careful he doesn’t cross a line and piss off magicians because they are important allies in the skeptical movement? Yes, but hopefully rational minds will prevail and see there is a happy middle ground. Finally, agreeing with some other posts, personally, I find that knowing how some magic tricks are done only makes me appreciate the art and skill of magic more.

  84. “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends! Well I say there are some things we don’t want to know! Important things!” ~ Ned Flanders

  85. papu says:

    Can’t you all see that Christ was flowing through Shermer and told him the correct color?

  86. Dr. Dim says:

    Soooo, where’s the reveal? I can’t seem to find it. Am I just overlooking it?

  87. Nick says:

    I used to do this trick as a kid.. and now my son does it. I’m surprised there’s any question about how it is done.

  88. peter says:

    is there a follow up ?

  89. Max says:

    The magic mafia got him.

  90. The Don says:

    Steve gave the block to his assistant yellow side up.

  91. The Don says:

    Sorry, MIKE, not Steve. I’d read too much about Steve’ response which was also a good idea.s

  92. Dr. Dim says:

    Again I ask, where is the video where Dr. Shermer reveals the trick? I thought he wasn’t going to make us wait.

  93. He disappeared it, he did, and we’re to explain THAT trick.

  94. Morgan says:

    In response to JasonBBG (post #36) who said Michael Shermer requested people not post any answer read again. He said:

    “But in the meantime, we would be interested in what you think the solution might be. If you have seen this before and know the explanation, please don’t post it.”

    OK, apply a bit of logic here. Some of us have never seen this before (like me) but we have figured out what we think the solution is and therefore posted it just like he requested. I am pretty sure of my answer but I worked this out without input from anywhere else – therefore I posted what I THINK the solution is, not what I KNOW it is. I could still be wrong. However, this is not a very difficult puzzle so it shouldn’t be hard for many people to figure out easily a likely solution and in the process find themselves posting the actual answer!

    What price clarity indeed! (See I must have too much time on my hands too!!!)

    And in response to Scott (#45):

    “I think the number of people who believe a parlor trick to be real magic is quite small and perhaps over-inflated by a society such as this. As many times as I performed tricks in the past, never once did someone believe it to be genuine magic. Magic has its place — it’s called entertainment. Are we debunking entertainment?”

    I think you made a couple of interesting points here. I don’t think too many people think parlour tricks are magic either but at the same time I created a website for one of my clients where people can make wishes. A friend of mine uses this regularly truely believing that it works even though I have explained to her that it is illogical since I made the site myself and there is nothing magical about it. But she argues vehemently that I am wrong and that wishes do come true by using the site. How ridiculous!!! So some people really can’t accept there are logical explanations for things that appear supernatural even when the person who created the illusion explains it.

    As to debunking entertainment – not a bad point actually. This doesn’t disprove ESP – just strengthens the case that ESP type things are likely to have logical explanations.

  95. GH says:

    Reminder: Michael asked us to describe how we think about these things.

    For me the video produced three lines of thought.

    First, I think the primary point to be taken is that charlatans make their living on people’s gullibility, and they will intentionally conflate synesthesia, sleight of hand, ESP, miracles, and various other unrelated concepts – in general do pretty much anything – to keep the paranormal party going. They’re preying on unclear thinking; why limit themselves to any particular class of mental errors?

    But the relationship between paranormal claptrap and sleight of hand needs to be made very carefully and very clearly. I assume Michael’s “reveal” video will state the connection. In my humble opinion, stating the connection in a separate video is not a safe technique.

    Second, I know enough about synesthesia to know that Michael didn’t do the subject justice. This was part of the trick. I hope the “reveal” video will supply some clarification.

    Third, the supposed use of synesthesia, given Michael’s inaccurate description, was not a very well executed part of the trick… or was extremely well executed, if the intent was to fool the first 90+ responders, none of whom picked up on the fact that he was stroking the colored surface and “getting a light color” while it was supposedly covered up. If in fact he was trying to use synesthesia, the lid would have had to have been off, so he should have been doing it behind his back. In fact the lid was off, although this fact is hidden when the trick is done in the standard way. So maybe he botched the trick – but I’m going to give him credit instead for doing this purposely to help make his point.

    So, kudos for fooling the first 90+ completely, Michael. Nice extra level of deception, there. But bring your “A” game next time, if you want to fool *me*. ;-)

  96. Shahar Lubin says:

    I would like some clarification from the magicians out there.

    Skepticism is a way of analyzing the world around us. When magicians say they should be involved in ESP research, is it becuase they can figure tricks out using their experience, or because they already know how they’re done. If it’s the latter, then they’re not nesseraly promoting critical thinking. I’m not trying to attack the magical community, just interested.

    As it was pointed out, Shermer asked people who knew the trick not to post. Because that is the case(even though in reality some seem to have ignored this) then it was truly skepticism in action. Looking at an event and applying logic and careful thinking.

  97. RC says:

    The metaphysical community exists because of people believing parlor tricks that are portrayed as being real.

    This trick is poor since he has to put it behind his back. To really have the effect you can’t do anything unusual. He needs to just be shown the box, put his hands over it but not touch it and then state what color is showing.

    This is the trick I do. Any ideas how that is possible??
    I can tell you that most people believe I really must have a ‘gift’.

    It is amazing how people have little ability to work out how things could be done and how they then jump to ‘magical’ solutions.

  98. GH says:

    One other note: to perform any experiment as a genuine test of any supposed synesthesia (or garbled interpretation thereof), Michael better than most knows it must be structured as a double-blind test.

    Which it wasn’t; the assistant knew the chosen color.


  99. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Com’on Micheal, this was in every kids beginner’s magic kit. In fact, mine was an orange-red box too.

    For effect, try pretending to devine it while it is behind you. This gives you the excuse to put it behind you in the first place. Then bring it up, shake it (the cube will stay in), then give the reveal.

    Just a thought from an former kid magician.

  100. Devil’s Advocate (56) – You are right to be in awe of the “Got Your Nose” trick. To some it is a jaded parlor trick, but when you see even this simple trick performed in the hands of a master of the art of magic, someone who applies his or her years of study of the psychology of the deceptive arts and of theater, of misdirection and scripting and emotion, you would be persuaded that even this trick may belong in a professional repertoire.

    I find that even ineptly performed, it confounds my three-year-old daughter filling my home with shrill clarions of “Gib Me Mah Noze Back!”

    [I do know the reveal on the "Got Your Nose" - or the GYN, as we call it in the majik world, but do not worry DJG - I will not reveal the prestige of the GYN here!]

  101. Doug Segal says:

    I can’t see the point of this.

    I can see why skeptics would want to expose “psychic phenomenoms” perpetuated by people like this:
    or this
    or even this:

    But I don’t see any of those performing off the shelf magic tricks like this one for money – Do you?
    They do “readings” or “bend spoons”, “speak to the dead” not perform magic tricks available at any online magic shop.

    This is more like the masked magician.

    Ridiculous – What on earth is Michael Shermer doing? Auditioning for Britains Got Talent?

    Perhaps his next clips should run something like this….

    “So do I have psychic powers???? Watch this clip and ask yourself – is this guy really doing that with the power of his mind?
    So the next time someone unscrupulous tries to charge you money for something like this, ask your self – Is he really psychic – or a cheat – This is Michael Shermer signing off”

    Frankly it makes me sceptical about Michael’s own motivations…

    • Jason BBG says:

      Doug Segal says: “Frankly it makes me sceptical about Michael’s own motivations…”

      I think the good Doctor would be pleased with that response.

  102. avraham says:

    he put the cover on a diff sied so he could see

  103. Occam's Spork says:

    I think the real magician’s trick here is to get the audience to figure out how he did the trick, rather than to actually present any evidence that the subconscious can’t pick up on information that our usual perceptions miss.

    Blind Watchmaker: Give the video another look, at 1:20 he does indeed put the cube behind his back. ;)

  104. Harry says:

    My guess is the lid is placed on one side (or bottom) of the cube when the cube is behind your back. That way the top is open facing you when you pretend to feel the color. In fact, you can easily see the chosen color as the cube’s open top faces you. You then hide the fact that you remove the lid from the side of the cube when you finally show the open box to the audience.

  105. Neil says:

    i’ve seen this trick done with the magician not even being able to see the box let alone touch it yet he still got it right. can anyone explain?

  106. keen says:

    agree with the above one ,i thought the magician announce the color with the box behind his back, then he probably would, because it would be more impressive.

  107. Sindre says:

    This one is easy.

    He take of the hat on the box when it is behind his back, then he put the hat at the bottom of the box. When he take the box in frot of him he can just look at the color because the hat is at the bottom of the box. So we are actually looking at the hat while he is looking at the color. Then he grab his hands arround the box and pull of the hat from the bottom of the box, but for us it just like he took it off from the top. You can watch this closely 1:39 in the film clip.

  108. Shrikrishna says:

    I think he put the cap on the side of the box and not on the bottom and at1:29 he looked at the open side to check the color.

  109. Rayphos says:

    There might be another similar box hidden behind his back at which point he drops the first box behind his back and takes the second hidden box knowing the color before the video was taken.

  110. Dave says:

    SO…Where is the reveal? I’ve have looked all over the interwebs, and nothing! Come on. This video is a year and a half old, and no reveal. Did he not promise a reveal–in the video?

    If there is a reveal, I can’t find it. If it is available, someone please post a location.

    If, however, there is no reveal–WOW! Just wow. I have appreciated Shermer’s work for many years now, but I’ll be done with him over this. I do not abide liars.

  111. Dave says:

    Yes. The trick is obvious: Behind his back, Shermer turned the box top away from his body, removed the lid and then placed the lid on the side now oriented upward. When he brought the box back to his front, clearly, he simply looked at the cube within; then he removed the lid while simultaneously, with a simple slight of hand, flipping the open side that was previously facing him to the up position.

    BUT THAT IS NOT THE POINT! The problem I have is that Shermer indicated there would be a reveal, and, as far as I can tell, there never was one.

    IMHO, that is extraordinarily weak.

  112. sanjeev says:

    quite baffeled today as some some showed the the trick in a conference, Got curious search the net. Its actually is simple.. cube is electronic wireless gadget with remote sensors that tells the performer which side is up(color). Does that make sense.

  113. I like it when people come together and share ideas. Great website, keep it