Does thinking like a thief make you smarter?

It just might . . .

Credit: Martin Schoeller for The New Yorker

Just for a moment, imagine being the best pickpocket on the street.

How would you go about stealing someone’s wallet, or nabbing their cell phone?

Much like a lion on the hunt, you would need to be skilled in identifying a weak target. Someone who is unaware, weak, or alone and off from their pack.
To do this you would need to be a careful judge of people’s gestures and expressions. Where are they headed? Do they have a purpose or are they wandering? Are they likely to have something of value?
What about your get away? Is there anyone around who might challenge you? Where is your get away? Are you faster than your prey? Can you jump out of the way if they have a knife?
You wait until the perfect time to pounce. Your plan must be executed quickly and with perfection, or you will be caught.
Do you work with others? This makes it easier to create distractions and make your get-away, but then you have to share the spoils. And it’s hard to trust other thieves.

The upshot here is, at least until you get caught and suffer the consequences, thieving may be a pretty good way to keep your mind and body sharp.


I’m not a thief, but instead live a much more sedate (and safe) life doing research about learning and the brain. But,

I recently met Roald November. And as far as I can tell, he has a lot of experience thieving.

Roald was born in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and has probably never left this place. My husband and I recently met him — a shabbily-dressed man carrying a field hockey stick — walking about in the nature preserve where we hike.

Empowered by being together (a woman alone would not approach a suspicious-looking man here) we asked him about his stick, and ended up learning a lot about him and his life. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about how agile the mind of a criminal has to be.

Thieves are expert at quickly and effectively assimilating the details of a scene as well as the big picture. This information is constantly being updated, and if they aren’t vigilant, they lose or get caught.

If it weren’t for the all-too obvious downsides of living that life, it would probably be great brain “training.”

Seriously, web-based brain training programs haven’t been shown to be effective at increasing anything beyond the skills in the discrete tasks that they train. Essentially people get better at playing their games.

To really stretch and grow your brain, you need to do something different, and difficult, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument.

Small challenges are easier to make part of your daily routine, but they still make an impact because they are hard. For example, try eating or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. After you have mastered soup, try chopsticks!

Just yesterday I took on a terrifying brain-body challenge: I drove on the left hand side of the road for the first time, in a car with a manual transmission! Talk about focus. I had to think about staying on the right (left!) side of the street, giving way to anyone coming from my right, and simultaneously shift gears with my left hand.
I will know that I’ve made new brain connections when I can do all of this without consciously thinking about it.

Next time you are walking down the street, try to put yourself in the pickpocket’s shoes. Like me, you might find yourself noticing minute details about the people and places around you.


If you found this interesting or learned anything new, please let me know by giving it 💚💚💚.