Moving through the waters of human attention

apollorobbinsThe New Yorker has an amazing article on pickpocket and illusionist Apollo Robbins that is packed with gems about attention, misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

Robbins is a self-taught but dedicated aficionado of human consciousness and has learnt the many ways in which our attention can be manipulated.

The article discusses how Robbins does many of his pickpocketing techniques but also discusses how he got into the business and how he has begun collaborating with cognitive scientists to help us understand scientifically what he has learnt artistically.

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this”—he demonstrated—“it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket—is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”

In fact, he jointly published a scientific study in 2011 based on his discovery that when something starts moving in a straight line people tend to look back to the origin of the movements, but if something moves in a curve they stay fixed on the object.

If you want to see Robbins in action, and it really is astounding, you can catch him in various videos on YouTube.

There’s even one where he explains how he does it in terms of the neuroscience of attention which is particularly good.

But don’t miss this New Yorker article, it’s both an entertaining and informative guide to a master of human attentional blindspots.

Link to New Yorker article ‘A Pickpocket’s Tale’.

One thought on “Moving through the waters of human attention”

  1. The reference article is very Gibsonian (per Gibson’s theory of direct perception).

    Magicians’ manipulation of attention–entirely consistent with the doctrine of complete specificity which underwrites Gibson’s ecological (versus narrowly psychological) view of perceptual experience. What’s meant by “complete specificity” is that a perceiver’s subjective experience of objective existents is just that —an awareness of independently existing actualities that appear as they do because they are what they are. It follows that one’s knowledge of the world, which includes knowledge of one’s self and others as actors in the world, is obtained in its entirety from an acquaintance with what is available in the world to experience.

    This runs counter to an information processing view which supposes that perception is indirect–a matter of elaborating upon what is given to experience with information from another source. The indirect view is deeply problematic because it cannot resolve conflicts between competing views of reality.

    The corrective to believing that the magic an illusionist seems to employ is real is to perceive–bring to attention– the trickery that the illusionist concealed. That’s not a matter of changing how information is processed, rather, it is a matter of obtaining more information . . .

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