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Sleights of Mind: the secrets of neuromagic


Last month, I blogged a fascinating profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket with an almost supernatural facility for manipulating attention and vision to allow him to literally relieve you of your watch, eyeglasses, and the contents of your wallet without you even noticing it, even after you've been told that he's planning on doing exactly that.

The profile mentioned that Robbins had consulted on a book called Sleights of Mind, written by a pair of neuroscientists named Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde (a husband and wife team, who also hired science writer Sandra Blakeslee to help with the prose, to very good effect). Macknick and Martinez-Conde are working scientists who had a key insight: the way that magicians manipulate our blind spots, our attention, our awareness, our intuitions and our assumptions reveal an awful lot about our neurological functions. Indeed, conjurers, pickpockets, ventriloquists and other performers are essentially practicing applied neuroscience, working out ways to systematically fool our perceptions and make seemingly impossible things happen before our eyes.

The book is a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems; accounts of the meetings between illusionists and scientists that the authors organized; histories of magic tricks; exposure of psychic frauds and fakes; and a tale about the couple's quest to craft a neuroscience-based magic act that would gain them full membership to the exclusive Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

I really can't overstate the charm and delight of Sleights of Mind -- from the introduction to the extensive footnotes, it is a truly great popular science text on one of my favorite subjects. The accompanying website is full of supplemental videos, showing how illusions work as mechanical effects, scientific principles and bravura performances. The performers who assisted the authors -- James Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and, of course, Apollo Robbins -- are all justly famed for their skill, and the book is worth a read just for the insight it provides into their work. But it goes so much farther, providing both a theoretical underpinning in the neuroscience of perception and consciousness, and practical advice on how to apply this to your everyday life.

One interesting note: the authors mention a book called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, which reprints the secret (and long-lost) training documents that magician John Mulholland created for the Agency in 1952, which were used at the height of the Cold War by US spies to deceive their Soviet counterparts -- for example, details of how to use the "big move" of lighting a cigarette to disguise the "small move" of slipping drugs into a rival's drink. I haven't read this yet, but I've just ordered it.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions

Apollo Robbins, pickpocket -- mindbending live performance

Last month, I linked to a great Atlantic New Yorker profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket who pulls off the most audacious fingersmithing you've ever seen, manipulating attention with such a fine touch that he leaves even jaded magicians slack-jawed.

Here's a great example of Robbins's schtick, from an NBC news show. I've been reading Sleights of Mind, a book on the neuroscience of vision, attention, optical illusion and magic, for which Robbins was extensively interviewed, and this video really helped me understand what the writers are talking about.

Supernatural pickpocketing skills!! Awesome to watch! - by Apollo Robbins (via Kottke)

Apollo Robbins: profile of a pickpocket

The New Yorker's profile of Apollo Robbins is one of the most interesting things I've read all year (ha). Robbins is a self-trained virtuoso pickpocket who once managed to lift a pen out of Penn Jillette's pocket, steal the ink cartridge, and return the pen, all while he was demurely insisting to Jillette that he wasn't really comfortable performing in front of magicians.

Josh grew increasingly befuddled, as Robbins continued to make the coin vanish and reappear—on his shoulder, in his pocket, under his watchband. In the middle of this, Robbins started stealing Josh’s stuff. Josh’s watch seemed to melt off his wrist, and Robbins held it up behind his back for everyone to see. Then he took Josh’s wallet, his sunglasses, and his phone. Robbins dances around his victims, gently guiding them into place, floating in and out of their personal space. By the time they comprehend what has happened, Robbins is waiting with a look that says, “I understand what you must be feeling.” Robbins’s simplest improvisations have the dreamlike quality of a casual encounter gone subtly awry. He struck up a conversation with a young man, who told him, “We’re going to Penn and Teller after this.”

“Oh, then you’ll probably want these,” Robbins said, handing over a pair of tickets that had recently been in the young man’s wallet.

When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time. At the Rio, a man’s cell phone disappeared from his jacket and was replaced by a piece of fried chicken; the cigarettes from a pack in one man’s breast pocket materialized loose in the side pocket of another; a woman’s engagement ring vanished and reappeared attached to a key ring in her husband’s pants; a man’s driver’s license disappeared from his wallet and turned up inside a sealed bag of M&M’s in his wife’s purse.

After the performance, Robbins and I had dinner at the bar. “A lot of magic is designed to appeal to people visually, but what I’m trying to affect is their minds, their moods, their perceptions,” he told me. “My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality.”

My fascination with the profile doesn't just come from the recounting of Robbins's many impressive deeds (though they are impressive, and if I ever had cause to book a magician for a gig, he'd be it), but also the struggle that Robbins has had in coming up with ways to maximize his prodigious talent.

Reading further down, I noticed that Apollo Robbins collaborated with neuroscientists on a book called Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, which I've ordered. I was also unsurprised to learn that Robbins had consulted on the late, lamented caper-show Leverage, which explains quite a lot about why that show was so good.

A Pickpocket’s Tale [Adam Green/The New Yorker] (via Making Light)

Teller and the neuroscience of magic

Writing in Wired, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) about his contribution to a recent paper on the neurology of magic. Fascinating reading -- magic as applied neuroscience.

Consider a technique used by the legendary pickpocket Apollo Robbins, another coauthor of the Nature article spearheaded by Macknik and Martinez-Conde. When the researchers asked him about his devious methods--how he could steal the wallet of a man who knew he was going to have his pocket picked--they learned something surprising: Robbins said the trick worked only when he moved his free hand in an arc instead of a straight line. According to the thief, these arcs distract the eyes of his victims for a matter of milliseconds, just enough time for his other hand to pilfer their belongings.

At first, the scientists couldn't explain this phenomenon. Why would arcs keep us from looking at the right place? But then they began to think about saccades, movements of the eye that can precede conscious decisions about where to turn one's gaze. Saccades are among the fastest movements produced by the human body, which is why a pickpocket has to trick them: The eyes are in fact quicker than the hands. "This is an idea scientists had never contemplated before," Macknik says. "It turns out, though, that the pickpocket was onto something." When we see a hand moving in a straight line, we automatically look toward the end point--this is called the pursuit system. A hand moving in a semicircle, however, seems to short-circuit our saccades. The arc doesn't tell our eyes where the hand is going, so we fixate on the hand itself--and fail to notice the other hand reaching into our pocket. "The pickpocket has found a weakness in the way we perceive motion," Macknik says. "Show the eyes an arc and they move differently."

While the magicians are educating the scientists, so far the scientists haven't offered much in return. Cowboy trick aside, Teller says, "this is an example of entertainers getting there first." And he wishes it weren't so. Teller hopes that laboratory insights will offer ways to break free of the stale tricks that have defined magic for decades--much as new technologies made possible the illusions of David Abbott in the early 20th century. A loan shark in Omaha, Nebraska, Abbott performed innovative, late-night shows in his living room. (Harry Houdini was one of many magicians who made the pilgrimage.) "Abbott used to say he wasn't satisfied with a trick unless people began to weep," Teller says. "He was that good."

Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion (via Kottke)