During art class in fifth grade, our teacher would repeatedly say “You have to learn how to look.” without saying anything more. What was I looking for? How was I supposed to do this? I never had the courage to ask; I thought everyone but me knew what they were doing.
Amy E. Herman’s book Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life instantly intrigued me. Herman conducts classes in visual perception that have been used by the FBI, Scotland Yard, NYPD, Department of Homeland Security, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and other organizations where visual sharpness is required to perform jobs well. An art historian and attorney, Herman helps her clients see what others do not, and these skills can translate to saving a life or saving a company.
To begin, Herman has us look at various paintings then look away and write down everything we observed. What details did we catch and what did we overlook? She relates the story of how a crime was ultimately solved by someone who noticed on security camera footage that the perpetrator’s pants had been turned inside out – a small detail that escaped the notice of experts for months. Next, Herman has us look at the words we’ve used to describe what we see in a painting. Are they subjective or objective? What’s the difference and why does it matter? What biases are we bringing to our observations? How do we learn to look objectively so that we can communicate to others what we are seeing?
Some of her suggested exercises are reminiscent of the game played in the novel Kim, and they are still useful today. In an age of constant distractions, learning what can we do to focus our attention is more pertinent than ever. Her suggestions and methods will help make me more aware of what I observe.
If you would like to test your own visual perception, visit Herman’s website and take a short quiz. Don’t miss scrolling down the page and reading the article How Distractions are Making Us Dumber. There’s also a TED talk on How Art Can Help You Visualize.