The following is an excerpt from "Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind" [Harper, $26.99]:
With his black Stetson hat, lizard-skin boots, and wide Doc Holliday moustache the texture of dried tumbleweed, world-class card manipulator Richard Turner looks like a saloonkeeper from the Badlands, a Victorian-era cowboy, or a ghost town tour guide. When I first saw this apparition at a closed-door lecture of the Society of American Magicians in a sterile auditorium at the back of the Mount Sinai Medical Center on Madison Avenue, I checked his hip for the scabbard and six-shooter, seemingly the only things missing from his getup. Nope, no holster, just a solid gold belt buckle in the shape of a five-card poker hand—three aces and two eights.
Still, Turner is licensed to carry a sidearm. Nearly three decades ago, when the top organized crime families in New York and overseas were pursuing him relentlessly, offering him millions to work for them and threatening to kill him if he declined, he was armed for his own protection by the head of the San Diego SWAT team. What the mob wanted so badly—what they were willing to kill for—was Richard Turner’s sense of touch. It’s an underappreciated sense in this audiovisual age, but within the rarified domain of the professional cardsharp, a finely tuned sense of touch is everything. In Turner’s case it almost got him killed, and after witnessing a demonstration of his Midas-like abilities the night of the lecture, along with a dozen or so other local magicians who’d come to watch him perform, I understood why.
“Do as I do,” Turner opened, in a warm antebellum drawl, flashing a bandit’s grin as he offered a deck to the volunteer he’d chosen from the crowd, a blond woman in her mid-thirties with light, freckled skin. “When you play poker, blackjack, bridge—whatever your game—you wanna make sure the cards are very evenly mixed. Let’s start with some simple cuts. Takes no skill to do this.” Turner started to cut the cards, gradually speeding up as he spoke while his volunteer did her best to keep up. “Now alternate it. Now try a flying three-way.” Up until this point she’d been with him, but that phase was about to end. “Now try a one-two-three-four-five-six-seven way. Or strip cutting, as in the casino.”
The audience chuckled as Turner’s hands moved in a blur and his volunteer tried in vain to follow. “No skill at all,” she cracked wryly, as Turner moved on to a series of shuffles, each one more intricate than the last. The woman now stood haplessly by, no longer trying, a portrait of defeat.
Ignoring her and addressing himself to the audience, Turner went on. “Aaaright,” he said. “Now you’re ready for the way they shuffle in a casino. Just give it a closed riffle shuffle. Perfect. Now how ’bout the faro shuffle? Break ’em in half and lace ’em up every other card then bridge ’em down.” There was more laughter as Turner split the deck exactly in half and interleaved the two stacks with one hand, then executed an acrobatic one-handed flip-around cut. He paused. “Well, I’ve shown you half a dozen ways of shuffling and cutting,” he said. “The deck should be pretty evenly mixed, right?” He smiled triumphantly and spread the deck face up on the table to reveal the cards in pristine numerical order.
Not bad for a guy who’s legally blind.
That’s right: Turner is blind. Actually, his vision is six grades below the cutoff for blindness, the result of a rare degenerative tissue disease that began ravaging his retinas at age nine. “The macula is pretty much dissolved,” he told me later, referring to the oval cluster of nerve cells near the center of the eye. “And the rest of the retina looks like someone took a shotgun with birdshot and blew it full of holes.”
Most other people with this disease would probably have given up on the dream of becoming a world-class card manipulator, a goal Turner had set his mind on at age seven after watching an episode of the TV show Maverick. But Turner kept at it. He practiced day and night. He ate and drank and slept with cards in hand. He still sleeps with his cards, and five years ago, when forced to undergo hernia surgery, Turner clutched a deck while on the operating table. To hear Turner tell it, his abilities are not something he developed in spite of his disability, but rather because of it. “I have to do it all by touch,” he says. “Which is a real blessing.”
Watching Turner baffle a roomful of experts put me in mind of what is often said about people who lose one or more of their primary senses: that their surviving senses compensate by becoming sharper. We now know that this compensatory response is partly rooted in a phenomenon known as brain plasticity, wherein neurons regenerate and reorganize themselves in response to trauma or a change in the environment. Once viewed as a calcified mass of unalterable circuitry, the human brain turns out to be surprisingly labile, even in adulthood, and the study of brain plasticity has become a central theme of modern neuroscience.
Indeed, what Turner lost in vision he seems to have recouped in an almost superhuman tactile ability. It’s as though he sees with his fingers. Give him a pile of cards, and he can tell you exactly how many are there by running his index finger along the edges. Turner is so good, in fact, that he’s on retainer at numerous casinos and works the United States Playing Card Company, the world’s largest card manufacturer. His title: the Touch Analyst.
The notion that blind people develop enhanced nonvisual abilities to make up for their lack of sight goes way back, to a time long before we knew anything about neuroplasticity. Only in the last decade or so, however, have scientists systematically matched up the blind and the nonblind in head-to-head tests, peering into their brains to see what, if anything, was different. The results, even after discounting for the accumulated wisdom of history, have revolutionized the way neuroscientists think about the mind.
Consider, for starters, how much better blind people hear compared to most. As has been shown in dozens of studies, the blind beat the nonblind on virtually every measure of acoustic ability. Blind people are better at speech recognition, sound identification, and auditory localization, even with one ear plugged. They hear changes in pitch that are ten times smaller than anything a seeing person can manage. (This is why the best piano tuners are blind.) Perfect pitch—the ability to identify notes without external reference tones—is three times more common among blind musicians than among those who can see, and this is true even for blind musicians who began their musical training later in life.
Where tactile sensations are concerned, the blind not only read with their fingers—using the Braille alphabet—but they can recognize raised letters and embossed pictures by feel with remarkable precision. They’re able to sense minute differences in texture that are imperceptible to most people. Their fingers can feel, for instance, the difference between a single groove and a pair of parallel grooves, even when the two grooves are separated by a fraction of a millimeter.
Armed with fMRI machines and PET scanners, neuroscientists recently zoomed in on the brains of blind subjects to see what was going on under the hood during these amazing perceptual feats. What they found came as a shock. As expected, Braille reading and other touch-related tasks engaged the somatosensory cortex, the zone of gray matter that processes tactile sensations. This was true of everyone, not just the blind. But when the blind participants read Braille, something unexpected occurred: the visual cortex, the part of the brain dedicated to vision, lit up as well. Even though they lived in total darkness, the inner eye of the blind subjects exhibited all the features of cognitive engagement—increased blood flow, a cascade of metabolic activity, and a shower of electrical impulses—that one would normally observe in a seeing person whose eyes are glued to a book or a baseball game. The story these scans told was unmistakable: the blind subjects were seeing with their fingers.
Not only that, but the visual cortex was found to be the driving force behind these superior abilities. Performance on nonvisual tasks was directly linked to the level of activity in the visual cortex—the more active it was, the better they did—and temporarily disabling the visual cortex with a Marvel-esque machine called a transcranial magnetic stimulator, which beams a magnetic field into select brain regions, rendered them unable to read Braille and identify embossed letters. Playing the same prank on people who can see, meanwhile, has no impact on their sense of touch; it hampers only their vision. A parallel strand of research meanwhile has found that people who are born blind lose the ability to read Braille if a stroke damages both hemispheres of their visual cortex, even if their tactile system remains unharmed. Perhaps this is why blind people such as Turner frequently speak of touch in visual terms. “When I touch something,” he says, “I’m seeing it in front of me in full scale. If I touch a pen, instantly I see a pen. If I touch a comb, I see a comb.” More than just a fanciful metaphor, this language hints at the underlying neural correlates at work.
This apparent crossover between the visual and tactile channels took neuroscientists by surprise in part because the majority of them had long believed in a fixed division of labor between major brain regions. Each primary cortex was thought to handle a single sensory modality. The visual cortex dealt exclusively with vision, the auditory cortex dealt exclusively with sound, and so forth. If for whatever reason the optical feed were severed, the visual cortex would forever lie fallow, sealed off from the world. Cross-modal plasticity, in which one higher-level brain region takes over for another, was thought to be impossible, an assumption that seemed reasonable enough given that signals from the optic nerve travel to the brain along distinct pathways, separate from those of the other senses.
But, as we are continually reminded, the brain is full of tricks.
Correction: The reference to 'deadman's hand' was removed with the agreement of the author.