• Robb G. Best

Card Sharps, Blind Spots, and Monkey Business

The Three-card Monte is a scam that’s been around since the 15th century. In England, it’s called Find the Lady; in France, Bonneteau. It also goes by the name Chase The Ace, Running The Red, Three Card Molly, Three Card Shuffle, Ménage a Card, and Triplets. (Let's give the criminal underclass their due: they're pretty good at naming short cons.)

Whatever you call it, it's essentially a shell game, but played with cards and psychology.

The game begins when a stranger sets up a simple challenge: keep your eye on one card as it's shuffled along with two others. This challenge seemingly gets even simpler when the dealer looks away long enough for a spectator to sneaks in and fold down a corner of the "money" card. The game is now rigged. Easy as taking candy from a baby, right?

Maybe, if the baby in question is a magician.

Turns out the spectator, or 'shill', is just another part of the con. The dealer switches the bent card for another bent card in a slight-of-hand known as 'the changeout', and now the game is rigged in the other direction. Before you know it, your money is gone, and so is the pair of con artists.

Perhaps you’ve never fallen prey to this confidence game. After all, we both know that you’re not easily conned. This makes perfect sense except for this fact: you are being conned at this very moment.

No, not by me. But you are intimately familiar with the perpetrator, or rather the perpetrators. And it’s all right in front of you. Your visual cortex and your brain are in cahoots. They are taking advantage of a large blind spot in your field of vision, the place where your cortex attaches to your retina. It's like sitting behind the post in a stadium. Except in this case, you don't see the post because your brain takes the surrounding visual information and fills in the blank. The result? "What post?" you say. (The brain is the original Photoshop.)

This is only the beginning of the con. Aside from your blind spot, your vision only reveals to you one trillionth of the real world. Your brain doesn’t have the processing power to show you more than that. So what you see is constantly going through your brain's editing process.

Unintentional blindness is an example of this. It happens when you look directly at something but it doesn’t register because your visual cortex is simply overloaded.

There is a famous experiment known as the Monkey Business Illusion where the watcher of a video gets so preoccupied by trying to track all the information presented on the screen, that he or she misses a man dressed in a gorilla costume who walks directly in front of the camera.

So your brain colludes with your senses to trick you--and not just once in a while, but every day of your life. This reminds me of my favorite P.T. Barnum quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” What Mr. Barnum undoubtedly failed to realize was that when it comes to the con, you can be both the deceiver and the deceived. Luckily, you can bypass your blind spot by turning your head a little. And although it's hard to avoid overloading your visual cortex (the brain: infinite possibilities, limited processing power), in your daily life you can rest assured that what you're missing is probably not as exciting as a giant upright gorilla loping around.

Probably. But you might want to keep your eyes peeled, just in case...

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