Manipulating the Brain With Magic

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Last night I fulfilled a childhood dream. I attended a live taping of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! I grew up listening to the NPR News quiz, and it only took me ten years of living in Chicago to finally make it to a show. Needless to say, I was giddy with anticipation.

For those who aren’t familiar with the radio show’s format, each week Wait, Wait brings a new panel of news and entertainment experts to the stage to answer questions about the week’s hot topics. Listeners can call in for the chance to win official judge Carl Kasell’s voice on their answering machines. And, finally, there is always a celebrity guest who joins in on the fun.

Last night’s guest was Apollo Robbins, a world-renowned pickpocket who calls himself The Gentleman Thief. Robbins is known for his uncanny ability to steal just about anything completely undetected, including the glasses right off of someone’s face. As he explained to Wait, Wait host Peter Sagal last night, his success depends on his ability to manipulate and misdirect attention. He is basically able to befuddle his “victims” neurons by utilizing our inability to focus on multiple things at once.

“You’ve got a one-track mind, you can only pay attention to one thing, and while you’re paying attention to that one thing you’re suppressing everything around it. And that’s one of the things that we’ve shown with our research,” Stephen Macknik, scientist and co-author of Sleights of Mind, explained to Scientific American in a recent piece on the neuroscience of magic.

For instance, Robbins will ask a person to hold a large coin, telling them not to let him take it. Using sleight of hand he continues to “magically” move the coin from the person’s hand to their shoulder. As the person tries to process what is happening, Apollo slyly removes their watch or pickpockets their wallet. But, the person is so focused on the coin they fail to notice they’ve been robbed.

Robbins is so good at tricking the brain that he has been pegged to teach at the proposed Department of Defense training center at Yale University. And, he is one of the experts on the National Geographic Channel show Brain Games.

For the last decade, the pickpocket has captured the attention of scientists, journalists and even presidents. He made headlines in 2001 by pick-pocketing Secret Service agents while entertaining the former President Carter, and he is the subject of a 9-page profile piece published in The New Yorker in January.

In his youth, Robbins used his skills for less-than-noble pursuits, but he promised Sagal he only uses his power for good these days. But, while he may be the best, Robbins certainly isn’t the only pickpocket out there. I, for one, will be watching my pockets more closely, and hoping my neurons don’t let me down.

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