Pickpocket's Secret: Our Minds Don't Multi-Task

According to BBC Future, the secret to pickpocket's success is that the mind, spectacularly tuned to notice that single difference, can just as easily be misled by that difference to drop its guard.

According to neuroscientists our brains come pretty much hard-wired to be tricked, thanks to the vagaries of our attention and perception systems. In fact, the key requirement for a successful pickpocket isn’t having nifty fingers, it’s having a working knowledge of the loopholes in our brains. Some are so good at it that researchers are working with them to get an insight into the way our minds work.

The most important of these loopholes is the fact that our brains are not set up to multi-task. Most of the time that is a good thing – it allows us to filter out all but the most important features of the world around us. But neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, the author of the book Sleights of Mind, says that a good trickster can use it against you. She should know: as a researcher at the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience in Arizona, she has studied how Las Vegas stage pickpocket Apollo Robbins performs his tricks.

The rest of the story here, as is a prior IF blog post on Apollo Robbins, the pickpocket performance artist whose thefts were compared to a Salsa in this lengthy New Yorker piece. While the thefts in the video are awfully impressive, Robbins' understanding of human psychology is equally deft.

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. 'When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,' he said, showing me. 'The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.'

Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. 'If I come at you head-on, like this,' he said, stepping forward, 'I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.' He took a step back. 'So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.' He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. 'See how I was able to close the gap?' he said. 'I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.'

Learning how magic tricks are done is often disappointing, because it’s not really magic. With Robbins, though, effect and method are one and the same, and seeing how he accomplishes his thefts is just as impressive as witnessing, or failing to witness, the acts themselves. Each movement dovetails perfectly with the next, with no extraneous steps or flourishes. When he places his arm somewhere, it’s not an accident; he’s blocking his victim’s view or locking him in place or temporarily stashing a wallet by pinning it against its owner’s body.

I loved the comparison of a pickpocket's work to a dance. The comic's ability to slip past our planked up defenses to lift hidden assumptions has, I think, a similar thieving grace. Live every art, its power is revelatory. 

Stay Curious.


'Vision' and 'Visionary' Differ in Degree

No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents. ― Ezra Pound

What distinguishes a genius from the merely creative? It's not intelligence, but a cognitive nimbleness with ideas, a capacity to think wide as well as deep according to the neuroscientist and medical doctor Nancy Andreasen.

That capacity for genius, however, may come at a cost. Following decades of work with the mentally ill, she has in more recent years studied the brains of extraordinarily creative people and finds between the two some commonalities.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as 'obvious.' Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, 'The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it… When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.' Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness....

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.

Her piece reminded me of this quote from Arthur Schopenhuer at The Creativity Post: geniuses don't just hit targets that no one else can hit, they hit targets no one else can see. The difference between having visions and being visionary may be of degree, not kind.

Read Secrets of the Creative Brain and decide for yourself.

I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!


Image: IdeaFesival diners on Main St. in Louisville, 2008.

Robin van Persie's Feet Have a Mind of Their Own

Exhibiting supreme grace and power, soccer players display how marvelously plastic the human mind is every time they take the pitch.

Right on time, a piece from BBC Future describes in more detail how, through repetition and practice, footballers make the split second calculations needed to dribble through defenders or arrive on the end of a long ball to nod home a goal. It's the same skill, incidentally, that many of us use everyday while driving a car. Tom Stafford:

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don't have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it's also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn't mean that you're mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

Known as embedded cognition, the essential idea is that our intelligence is distributed, which means that Robin van Persie's feet have a mind of their own. And this rather simple shift in how we think about intelligence now informs roboticists, philosophers and the practice of medicine alike.

Check out the video highlight reel of van Persie. And have a closer look at this outrageous World Cup goal against Spain!



Why Hard Decisions are Hard: What are You For?

Why are some decisions so hard?

You've heard the classic advice to list the pros and cons when faced with a tough call, but Shane Parrish at Farnam Street highlights a video from Ruth Chang, who wants to remind you that a hard decision is hard because the right choice cannot be found on a ledger. An accountant's scoring of the problem doesn't work because the problem isn't one of ignorance, but of agency.

Hard decisions bring us face to face with what we value. Ruth Chang:

A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons.... So the lesson of hard choices reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for (emphasis supplied).

Stay curious.


"Shut Up and Calculate" Bad Mojo

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies...

Tell all the truth but tell is slant - Emily Dickinson

Sean Carroll would like his fellow physicists to stop belittling philosophy.

Stephen Hawking believes philosophy is dead, an opinion shared by compatriot Lawrence Krauss, who says that introspection alone "is incapable of addressing... the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence." Neil deGrasse Tyson recently wondered aloud in this podcast about the contribution of philosophy to science. Do philosophers, he asks, really "believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature?"

Entering the fray, Carroll has had his say at Preposterous Universe, suggesting that the benefits of "shut up and calculate" only extend so far, at least if one's goal is a deeper understanding of the world at hand. Naturalists should stop saying "silly things" about philosophy. Carroll:

The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.

I certainly haven't the faintest idea what collapsing wave functions actually are or how they capture reality, or what further insight might lead science there, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone outside physics offers up that vital lead.

It seems to me that the charge made against philosophers could be made against librettists, against poets. They are members of one-half of two indissoluble domains, one imaginative and introspective, relying the belief that our private thoughts correspond to the world as it is (and, in point of fact, often wrong in that belief) and appealing to the wholly subjective and singular individual experience, the other with demonstrable third-party access to nature, which can describe matter on vanishingly small scales and use Newton's mechanics to guide metals among Saturn and its moons.

But the observed and transmitted reality of nature, is, after all, observed and transmitted by humans, biological paupers, the nervy embodiment of ancient metallic rains. It is staggering to me that the inheritors of those rains can fashion the remaining littered material into reporting automa, sending machines back to the void billions of years later with questions, questions, questions.

We understand everything in terms of other things. We also know the things that we know, which is the difference between your intelligence and the intelligence of the silicon ordinator you are using to read this blog post. The phenomenal "collapse" of innumerable neural connections in our brains and bodies that produces the experience of the color red is another data point added to red's chroma in a Jackson Pollock painting or its shift as it would appear on an astronomer's spectrographic prints. The sight of a bed of nodding roses, or the scent of orchard pears, or the felt embrace of a child, is absolutely singular. When we describe these things to each other we describe what these things are like, not, materially, what they are. With all due respect to Krauss, the problem is one of translation, not transcription. I can scarcely imagine how an intelligent entity without self-report might meaningfully address the perplexities. Yes, there are immensities folded into wave functions. There are infinities in your private experience.

And yet, I know. The truthers are out there. Notwithstanding my objections to to the objections of materialists, spare me the Moon landing hoaxers and climate-change deniers. Their potted minds grow nothing. "Shut up and calculate" is bad mojo for the same reason all absolutes are corrigible. Any conclusion that sums to "nothing but" should let you know that nothing, eventually, is on offer if what one seeks is understanding.

Carroll touches on an interesting philosophical question near the end of the video posted here, which was recorded just after his IdeaFestival presentation on the arrow of time: since time and space can be traced back to the Big Bang, is asking "what happened before the Big Bang" really nonsense? Is it really like asking "what's north of the North Pole?" Cosmologists, he says, are increasingly investigating scenarios that could make sense of the question. While it's true that a philosopher is unlikely to mathematically theorize about the possibilities, or propose an experiment that might offer empirical hints, she can still raise deep questions. She might, for example, ask if science is capable of proving that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Unlike, Hawking, Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I certainly have my doubts.

Stay curious.


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