Glitches in human perception and cognition are vividly illustrated in Apollo Robbins’ interactive Las Vegas show, “The Gentleman Thief.”
He tells his “targets” in the audience that he is about to steal from them, then uses visual illusions, proximity manipulation, diversion techniques, and attention control, to complete his imperceptible heists.
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 in reducing traffic accidents, industrial mishaps, and security violations.
He overcame motor-skill deficits by monitoring 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…”
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 leaving school before college.
Defense application of these perceptual manipulation skills were identified 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’ principles were substantially more advanced than those used by U.S. political or military intelligence analysts in the 1970s.
SUNY Downstate’s Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde collaborated with Robbins on Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deception.
They 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.
The curved motions may be more salient, novel, and informative than predictable linear edges, so attracts greater attention and is useful in deceptive illusions.
Cognitive errors that lead to perceptual illusions of “magic” suggest diagnostic and treatment methods for cognitive deficits from brain trauma, autism, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease, they argued.
Insights from magic performance can help patients focus 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 inattentional blindness when viewers 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 argued that people can “recognise hidden opportunities in … life,” by reducing perceptual blindness, in his research-based book, Magic in Theory: An introduction to the theoretical and psychological elements of conjuring.
University of Illinois’s Daniel Simons and Daniel Levin of Vanderbilt University demonstrated observers “seeing without seeing” in experiments involving people passing a basketball as woman in a gorilla suit walked through the action.
With Harvard’s Christopher Chabris, Simons reported that half of 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 focused on a distraction task.
This findings illustrates that most people are unable to effectively multitask because they have limited capacity to hold a visual scene in short-term memory (VSTM), according to University of Chicago’s Edward K. Vogel and Maro Machizawa of Hiroshima University and separately by Vanderbilt’s René Marois and J. Jay Todd.
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 in Towards a Science of Magic:
Rene Marois-J Jay Todd
Perceptual and cognitive illusions can cause people not to see things that are clearly present, which can lead to overlooking interpersonal cues and life opportunities.
Even more serious is the link among inattention, traffic accidents, and victimization by criminals.
Mindful awareness helps people attend to the present moment, to more attentively experience opportunities and relationships while mitigating potential perceptual misinformation.
-*How to you maintain focus to reduce “inattentional blindness”?