• Nathan Riley, MD

The Magician's Royal Flush: On the Importance of Magical Thinking

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ― Roald Dahl

Last year I saw the most incredible card trick. Twenty-five people were gathered around the table. The magician had wild curly hair and an ominous speaking voice.

“I want you all to watch very carefully.”

The magician had three volunteer attendees handle the cards: one to shuffle, one to cut the deck, and one to deal.

As the cards were dealt, the crowd was fixated. One by one, each of six volunteer participants encircling the green felt then revealed their hands. The magician explained the basic strategy of poker, contrasting each successive hand with its predecessors. The volunteers had been dealt competitive poker hands, including a straight flush to the man at the dealer’s left.

What luck!

The magician then revealed the hand that was dealt to him: a royal flush.

The likelihood of being dealt a royal flush is 1 in 650,000. As such, it trumps all other hands. And he managed it without ever touching the cards.

He performed the trick again, this time more slowly, arguing that we weren’t watching closely enough. Same result.


Most people don’t believe in “magic”, yet we are routinely faced with observations that we can’t explain: the intricacies of the cosmos, near death experiences, spirits, psychedelics, mystical epiphanies, clairvoyance, octopuses (really…what is that thing?!), creation, human attraction, and the ecstasy of orgasm.

As a society, our general response to mystery is to investigate. Medical oddities keep physicians awake at night. We are expected to have the answer — and we often have to fake it to appear respectable.

Through diligent investigation of these mysteries, our society is generally thought to be changing for the better. This pressure has led to timeless arguments, irrational wars, countless hurt feelings, and substantial investment of equity and capital.

I couldn’t offer praise congruent in magnitude to the praise deserved by the investigators of our species who have enriched our lives so completely through medical and scientific skepticism. And I realize that we all play this role to some degree. But once in a while, maybe it’s important to revel in the mystery and magic of the world?

Children marvel at the changing leaves in Autumn. Like magic, greens transform to shades of red and yellow. Not having the answers permits children the freedom to innovate solutions to the strange happenstances of our world. They haven’t yet been told what isn’t possible; therefore, anything is possible.

Viewing the world through the lens of a child suggests that binary thinking is not hard-wired. It is taught.

We are trained to believe that there is a correct answer. And if you have the correct answer, then, by definition, alternatives must be wrong. This binary thinking abounds in medicine, biology, religion, physics, and politics.

So then how do we reconcile our many experiences that don’t make sense?

Many of the world’s leading physicists couldn’t accept the early experiments that led to the development of quantum physics (Google cathode ray tube or double-slit experiment). They argued that either a) the experiments were misinterpreted or b) the results are anomalous. None could reconcile their life’s work against these new studies which were overwhelmingly at odds with their contemporary understanding of the universe.

It might as well have been magic.

Those initial results were later repeated, and eventually quantum theory was born. Our interpretation of the cosmos and the nature of matter was changed forever.

I will never know the secret of the magician’s royal flush, nor would I necessarily want it to be revealed. In our quest to have answers to life’s mysteries, our fixed ideas preclude alternative explanations. Innovation is thus well-served by magical thinking. Truth may only be discovered when we are willing to put aside these fixed ideas.

A royal flush. 1 in 650,000 odds. Secret deck? Planted volunteers? Fancy mirrors? Who knows? Anything is possible in the hands of a magician.

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