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. Read the rest

Apollo Robbins, pickpocket -- mindbending live performance

Last month, I linked to a great Atlantic profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket who pulls off the most audacious fingersmithing you've ever see.

Apollo Robbins: profile of a pickpocket

Apollo Robbins is a self-trained virtuoso pickpocket.

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.

Read the rest