The trick is, as always, on us. That's the way Trent Rivas wants it, the way all magicians do: a sleight of hand, an illusion, the belief that what you see can't be possible.

About six years ago, Rivas began pulling off a trick that continues to amaze. He discovered magic, and it transformed him. It unlocked a part of his brain -- a brain badly damaged at birth -- and brought to life emotions and dexterity his awe-struck parents thought they'd never see.

"I don't know what we'd do without magic," said his mother, Cathy Rivas. "He shouldn't have been able to do any of this."

Trent's longtime pediatric neurologist, Michelle Melyn, agrees: "For some reason, something within the magic does call to him and he finds it. There has to be almost a little magic center in the brain that has been opened up by his extreme interest in it. And with it has come more communication with the outside world."

Trent is now 22. He works two days a week at PJ's Trick Shop in Arlington Heights, Ill. He performs at magic events near his home in Des Plaines, Ill., and recently took third place in a magic competition. His life, the life in which he's engaged and chatty and laughing, is one of morning-to-night card tricks and levitating balls.

But before magic, Trent lived in relative isolation.

Bleak future

When he was born, he suffered a stroke. A lifesaving medical procedure caused a second stroke, leaving him with damage to about 85 percent of the right hemisphere of his brain.

Doctors said Trent would live, but the future looked bleak: His ability to think abstractly was gone; the part of the brain that processes emotions was damaged; cerebral palsy would inhibit use of the left side of his body.

The only way he could learn was through experiencing things, and repetition. He received physical and occupational therapy and went through the special-education system, his mother fighting every step to give him the best shot at a good life. She exposed him to as much as she could: music, movies and, around age 12, a magic show.

Two years later, they saw another magician, and Cathy Rivas noticed how the show held her son's attention.

She bought him an instructional video that sat unwatched for a couple of years. Then one day she found him in the basement room where he spent most of his time, watching the video over and over, working out a trick one step at a time.

It took hours of practice, but he got it: a simple trick with three cups and three balls, the balls seeming to pass magically through the solid bottoms of the cups as they're stacked one atop the other.

"That was big," said his mother. "That he was able to put the steps together, that was really big."

Magician mentor

Cathy Rivas reached out to the first magician Trent ever saw, Paul Lee, of Carol Stream, Ill., and he willingly became her son's mentor. Lee started teaching Trent tricks and letting him copy parts of his show, from the music to the scripted jokes.

"In the beginning, he had a little trouble holding cards," Lee said. "But it was fascinating. You see people with far less worries than he has give up on stuff. But he was going to do it no matter what. He was going to do it, and he would overcome the odds 99 percent of the time."

Melyn, the neurologist, said exposure to magic seems to have triggered a portion of Trent's brain circuitry that was dormant but not damaged in the strokes he had at birth.

"I think he has probably found a pathway to an area of the brain that is still open and receptive to learning, one that he had never used before," she said. "That's why he's just blossoming in that field."

It's unclear where in the brain this activity is happening, Melyn said, but it involves a combination of perception, vision and fine motor skills: "There's a lot going on here. Look at his confidence, look at his head held high. He doesn't have any depression anymore. He used to sit shyly in his seat and not offer much. Now he wants to show you what he can do."

She pointed out that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona lawmaker who was shot in the head in January, can sing easier than she can speak at this point in her recovery, likely because singing uses a portion of the brain that wasn't damaged in the shooting.

"We have a lot of resources in our brains," Melyn said. "It's a matter of opening up your unseen resources."

Opening doors

As Trent's skills grew, through tireless daily practice, practically morning to night, he began linking up with other magicians, getting invited to perform at schools and some professional magic shows. Doors began opening.

His mother had worked with a local agency to find him a job, but he "failed miserably" at everything he tried. Then she suggested he work at PJ's Trick Shop, doing what he loved: magic tricks.

"We love having him here," said Brian Johnson, manager at the magic and costume shop. "It's incredible the way magic has changed him. He has really opened up. Now he talks to the customers, helps us sell all kinds of tricks. He just has a lot of fun."

Trent seems alive and vibrant while he's performing with a deck of cards: "Here we go," he says in a lively patter, "pick any card from this deck. ... Ohhhh, not that one! ... Nah, that's fine, I'm just kidding!"

Limited progress

But away from magic, it becomes clear his engagement is another illusion.

"The progress he has made isn't in the other areas," Melyn said. "He still can't communicate well. If he's not doing anything that relates to magic, his face is not very expressive. He can't read or write. The world is rather blank to him."

His family sees this as well.

"This is the only topic he can really talk about," said his father.

As Melyn put it: "The only thing he's cognizant of is how happy he is in the world of magic and how much he wishes to progress in it."