The most fascinating book I read last year was Visual Intelligence by Amy E. Herman.
Ms. Herman is a lawyer and art historian and this book came out of The Art of Perception classes she taught for the FBI, the New York Police Department, and the Department of Defense, as well as other institutions whose agents rely on visual acuity and noticing things that others miss. The author has always seen life through an artist’s eye, “ . . . in the beautiful asymmetry of the sunlight streaming through the trees and the unique patterns of stones and shells left behind when the tide washed out.”
She opens the book with a personal experience of a ride-along with police officers answering a domestic call, and in that moment realized how often our lives depend on another’s visual intelligence and the person’s ability to convey that information. “To detach myself from the worry bubbling in my gut, I studied my surroundings as I would a painting, analyzing each nuance, taking stock of both foreground and back, trying to find meaning in small, seemingly incongruent details. I knew this was an unusual way to think – I’d been told this so often enough – but I always found my art background useful in the practice of law, where the need to be an objective observer is critical.”
Maybe our lives aren’t quite as dramatic as a police ride-along, but as we come out of this year-long forced hibernation we’ll be coming in contact with waitresses, store clerks, business partners, friends, and even family all of whom have their own way of looking at life. On any given day those perceptions influence how they interact with us, and our perceptions influence how we respond.
Herman uses well-known pieces of art (all reproduced in the book), stories from her classes, and items in the news to illustrate how we see and miss information. One of the exercises she does in her classes is to take the men and women to an art museum and teach them how to see.
One example in the book is Michelangelo’s David. Herman dissects David from his furrowed brow to the gap between his first and second toes. But the greatest insight could come from the simplest change, merely turning the statue a few degrees. Several scholars believe the statue’s orientation in the Accademia Gallery of Florence in Florence is not how the sculptor intended, and by seeing it in the ‘wrong’ way, we make wrong assumptions about the figure. Stanford University created a Digital Michelangelo Project, including turning the statue how it is believed it should be facing, giving viewers a different line of sight. From that perspective David’s face is what draws a viewer’s attention, not another part of his anatomy.
A story from the news showed how a murder was eventually solved after someone caught a visual clue that had been missed by several people looking at the same security footage. It illustrated how we miss things hiding in plain sight.
In addition to helping the Good Guys capture the Bad Guys, the purpose of Herman’s classes, and the book, is to sharpen your perception and change your life. One story she tells is about how a young man who grew up in an African refugee camp, now living in America, saw the bars of soap used in hotels. They were often used only once then thrown away. Where we saw trash, he saw a waste of something that held great value in his home country, something that could stop the spread of disease and death. Through this young man’s vision came the charity Global Soap Project which provided soap to thirty-two countries on four continents.
The chapters in the book follow the four skills needed to sharpen our perception – Assess, Analyze, Articulate, Adapt. One chapter’s sub-focus is Seeing Through Our Subconscious Filters – looking at what influences our perceptions. Another is Choose Wisely – like the artist Jackson Pollack who chooses specific colors for his abstract art, we have the ability to choose what ‘color’ words to use in specific situations.
In easy to read language and fun, interesting examples, Herman uses the lessons to tweak our observational skills and become more cognizant of how we form our perceptions, of how our own brain works. And in turn, understand the same about others.
Visual Intelligence helps us step back and open our eyes when we may not even realize how closed they are.
Thank you to the introduction of this book, Kim. It sounds really interesting!
Ev you would love this book! With your interest in and eye for art, and your compassion for others, this book would be a perfect read for you. If you decide to read it, let me know what you thought!