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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Thursday, 29 November 2018
A Pickpocket Teaches the Science of Attention

When I give courses on the brain’s “higher functions”, and I get to the topic of attention and control, I often show videos of Apollo Robbins, a professional pickpocket whom many consider the best in the world. The video I show most often was produced by Scientific American and is entitled “Neuroscience Meets Magic”. It shows neuroscientists who specialize in the subject of attention analyzing his subtlest gestures and identifying the classic principles of attention that he is manipulating, such as bottom up, top down, frame of attention, and misdirection.

Robbins describes himself as a student of human nature, rather than a professional pickpocket: he doesn’t actually rob people in the streets for a living, but puts on demonstrations instead. Thus a lot of professional magicians know about him, but he’s far less well known by the general public.

So I invite you to watch some of the many videos of Robbins’s performances that you can find on the web. They’ll blow your mind, and you’ll want to keep watching more. At the very least, you have to see the one where, while distracting someone with a poker chip, he steals their pen, wallet and even their watch, all without their even noticing! It’s hard to resist finding another video and watching Robbins rob another victim, because his movements and spoken patter are so precisely calibrated to direct his subject’s attention exactly where he wants it while stealing their belongings where it is not.

While I was writing this post, I stopped to watch some new videos that I had never seen before, of Robbins demonstrating some of the many subtleties of human attention. My eyes were just as glued to the screen as his victims’ are to his circular arm movements (one of the tricks that he uses to control where they are looking). So in closing, I’ll just pass along the following links to some examples of the fine artistry of Apollo Robbins.

Le meilleur Pickpocket du monde : Apollo Robbins

Apollo Robbins, The Master Pickpocket Tricks of the Trade

TED: The art of misdirection | Apollo Robbins
(Does his final trick remind you of a certain gorilla? And, bonus question: when did he make the switch?)

The Science Behind Pick Pocketing

Apollo Robbins, Pickpocket (EG7)

The Gentleman Thief: Apollo Robbins with John Gabrieli, PhD

And there are plenty more—hours and hours of pleasure to keep your attention captive, so to speak!

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