Apollo Robbins, son of a Baptist pastor whose half-brothers were street pick-pockets and shoplifters, demonstrates glitches in human perception and cognition in his interactive Las Vegas show as “The Gentleman Thief.”
He tells his “targets” that he is about to steal from them, then uses visual illusions, proximity manipulation, diversion techniques, and attention control to achieve his goal, to observers’ astonishment.
Robbins returns belongings, which kept him out of trouble when he lifted possessions of former US President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service agents.
In addition to the entertaining curiosity of Robbins’ feats, his skill is relevant to improving perceptual skills in normal and cognitively-impaired people, and reducing traffic and industrial accidents as well as safety and security violations.
He overcame congenital motor-skill deficits by practicing his craft and notes that the key to his feats is monitor the focus of a target’s attention: “If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.”
Like Kim Silverman, Research Scientist at Apple, Robbins creates “false assumptions… that look like reality and take advantage of those…I’ll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they’re expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement…”
The U.S. Department of Defense accesses Robbins’ skills at its Special Operations Command research-and-training facility at Yale University, where he an adjunct professor — despite his non-collegiate education.
Defense application of Robbins’ perceptual manipulation skills were foreshadowed by Barton Whaley of the Naval Postgraduate School and Susan Stratton Aykroyd in their Textbook of Political-Military Counterdeception.
Their historical survey of deception and counter-deception practices asserted that conjurors’ theories and principles were substantially more advanced than those used by U.S. political or military intelligence analysts in the 1970s.
Neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde of Barrow Neurological Institute collaborated with Robbins on Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deception.
These and other cognitive scientists posit that studying the common cognitive errors that lead to perceptual illusions of “magic” can suggest diagnostic and treatment methods for cognitive deficits, including attention deficits resulting from brain trauma, autism, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and Alzheimer’s disease.
Insights from magic performance may help patients “trick” themselves into focusing on the most important aspects of their environment, while suppressing distractions that cause confusion, disorientation, and “inattentional blindness” — focusing so intently on a single task that one fails to notice things in plain sight.
Psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire demonstrated this type of perceptual failure when viewers typically fail to notice environmental changes when focusing on a card trick.
Similarly, Transport of London’s Public Service Announcement reminds viewers that it’s easy to miss things you’re not expecting in “Did you see the Moonwalking Bear?”
Wiseman’s popular book on the same theme argues that people can be in guard for perceptual blindness and “recognise hidden opportunities in your life,” whereas his academic work offers Magic in Theory: an introduction to the theoretical and psychological elements of conjuring.
Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Daniel Levin of Vanderbilt University demonstrated “seeing without seeing” in similar experiments to the now-classic video of people passing a basketball as woman in a gorilla suit walked through the action.
Simons collaborated with Christopher Chabris at Harvard University and reported that half the observers said they did not see the gorilla when they were counting the number of ball passes by one team.
However, the same people easily recognized the gorilla when they were not focusing on a distraction task.
This finding reinforces research reports of most people’s inability to effectively multitask based on limited capacity – about four items — to hold a visual scene in short-term memory (VSTM), according to Edward Vogel and Maro Machizawa of the University of Oregon and René Marois and J. Jay Todd of Vanderbilt University.
Macknik and Martinez-Conde reported empirical results supporting Robbins’s observation that the eye will follow an object moving in an arc without looking back to its point of origin.
In contrast, when an object moves in a straight line, the eye tends to return to the point of origin.
Robbins is a co-author of the scholarly article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which compared volunteers’ eye movement patterns while watching a video of him performing a coin trick in which he moved his hand away in an arc or in a straight line.
The research team concluded that this perceptual principle is “explained by the differential engagement of the smooth pursuit and the saccadic oculomotor systems.”
They found that curved motions may be more salient, novel, and informative than predictable linear edges, so attract greater attention.
Gustav Kuhn of University of London collaborated with magician Alym Amlani and Ronald Rensink of University of British Columbia to classify cognitive, perceptual, and physical contributors Towards a Science of Magic:
- Physical misdirection. Most people, though not those with cognitive impairments like autism, typically follow a magician’s gaze or gesture in “joint attention”
- Psychological misdirection can be achieved with a casual motion that may be critical to the trick, or prolonging suspense to distract from the trick’s mechanics
- Optical illusions can distort the true size of an object
- Cognitive illusions can prolong an image after the object has been removed
- Physical force and mental force can influence “freely chosen” cards or other objects in magic tricks
Perceptual and cognitive illusions can cause people not to see things that are clearly present, which can lead to overlooking opportunities, interpersonal cues, and more seriously, to experiencing traffic accidents and victimization by criminals.
Mindful awareness is one countermeasure to help people attend to various aspects of the present moment, to more attentively experience opportunities and relationships while mitigating potential problems.
-*How to you maintain focus to prevent “inattentional blindness”?
- Making Magic Meaningful as a Life Metaphor
- Action Trumps Visualization to Improve Performance: “Do Something!”