My all-time favourite movie scene comes from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.
(Actually, my all-time favourite movie scene is when Little Inez wins “Miss Teenage Hairspray” in the 2007 film Hairspray but that does little for my pseudo-con artist cred.)
In the 1959 French New Wave classic, a crew of pickpockets silently make their way through a train station, picking the unsuspecting public clean of watches, wallets, purses and jewelry. As quick as the possessions are piffled, they are passed on to confederates. Each member of the team never ends up with the items they themselves stole.
The pickpockets move as one, barely making eye contact as they move through the crowd. Some of the techniques are highly accurate such as the newspapers are used as cover as slender fingers pluck cash from wallets. Other techniques are less likely to occur in real life, like when a pickpocket switches a woman’s purse with a magazine while it is tucked under he arm.
In both cases, no one suspects a thing.
How is this possible? How can a pickpocket remove your wallet, your watch, your purse, hell, even your belt, without you noticing?
Obviously, there are specific techniques that allow for the quick removal of an object. For example, by using your middle and index finger like a pair of chopsticks to steal objects you can slide your hand in and out of a pocket much subtly than a traditional pinching action with your thumb.
Over my thirty odd years as a magician, I’ve learned a variety of techniques for taking off audience member’s watches without them knowing. (For those in the business, my personal favourite is Ricky Dunn’s thumb technique).
However, it is almost impossible to perform any of these actions without your victim sensing you touching them.
So why don’t victim’s feel the pickpocket?
Because of what neuroscientists call sensory gating.
A good pickpocket knows there is a huge difference between what we see and what we perceive.
Our senses bombard our brain with stimuli, far more stimuli than our brains can possibly use or process. So our mind needs to filter information and determine what it is going to pay attention to and what it is going to ignore.
The pulvinar nuclei in the thalamus act as a kind of a gatekeeper, deciding which information should be stopped, and which should be sent to further cortical areas.
For example, right now you can’t your bum on your seat…until you read these words and you become hyper-aware of your backside.
This is because your pulvinar nuclei feel the seat and decide that the information is redundant.
This also occurs during the cocktail party effect. When you are in a noisy party with dozens of voices all overlapping, your brain is still able to ignore those voices and focus on the one person you want to hear.
So when a pickpocket takes your wallet from your pocket, your body senses it happening but your brain decides to filter out the information.
The pickpocket will often ensure that your brain ignores the stimuli by providing a second, more attention seeking stimuli. If I place my hand hard on your shoulder, your brain will pay attention to that sensation while filtering out the seemingly less important feeling of your wallet being pinched.
Watch this video of the great Ricky Dunn in action back in the day. Dunn will push an audience member into to place with this left hand while his right hand is, rather sloppily sometimes, taking their wallet.
This is actually one of the reasons I don’t do more pickpocketing in my act. I’m not a big toucher. I don’t like invading people’s personal space anymore than I like them invading mine. Sure, I’m happy to slip my hand in your pocket to take your wallet but the necessary bumping, shoving and manhandling required to create enough misdirection, isn’t something I enjoy doing.
That’s why I consider myself a con man over a thief.
Why steal a wallet when you can talk someone into giving it to you?
Nicholas J. Johnson is a con artist, author and sometimes thief.