“You can observe a lot by watching”
Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift”
One of life’s basic principles is that we are, to a large degree, the product of our choices. Our epistemology is self-determined. The tenor of our days lays the course for our lives. And the depth of the moments that become our days are profoundly shaped by our awareness--how mindfully we experience what is happening all around us.
In On Looking: A Walker’s Guide To The Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Columbia University, and author of the New York Times’ bestseller, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, turns her attention to the cognitive processes of the human brain. Horowitz examines how and why we perceive the world as we do: what we see, why we see it, and, as important, what we don’t see. She attends to our inattention.
While we walk to work, ride the bus, stop for a coffee, talk on the phone, text a colleague, or chat on a street corner, what are we missing? Evidently, quite a bit. Much of our time spent “doing”, traveling back and forth, coming and going, goes largely unremembered. We are often doing little more than sleep-walking through those parts of our day that fall outside our focus.
We are efficient because we ignore that which we determine irrelevant--concentrating instead on what we consider important. This is not unintentional. By so doing, we judiciously allocate and preserve our precious mental resources. We bank our wattage until we think we’ll really need it. We accomplish much, while cognizant of very little that does not serve our identified end. Mental focus, a tool that delivers so much in our uber goal-oriented culture, is also why we miss the poetry and nuance all around us.
Painfully aware of the blinders that shape her experiences, and inspired by the sensory engagement that animates her dogs’ meandering walks around her block, Horowitz wants to see the world for the first time--again and again. She wants to experience the morning walks around the block as fully and completely as her dogs. She wants to follow her interests on a walk rather than a route. She wants to free her senses and see more than simply what she expected to see.
How does one know what one is missing? Horowitz develops a plan: she will walk around a block with eleven different experts who will expose her blind spots. The experts range from an architect, to an artist, to a geologist, to an engineer, to a sound designer, to a physician, to a blind person,to her toddler son, to, of course, her dog, Finn.
Horowitz experts were people trained in different areas with various scopes of expertise and knowledge. The guiding thought was that while on these walks, the experts would share what they saw and experienced. Her walks would in turn be informed and oriented by their expert eyes. She would be“an investigator of the ordinary” and, ideally, the familiar would be rendered unfamiliar.
Horowitz set the stage by taking a walk by herself and describing what she sees. She then walks with her eleven experts and begins to see what she’d never seen, smell the unsmelled, hear the unheard, interact with people historically ignored, and more fully appreciate the fabric of an experience she never knew existed.
From all of this, Horowitz learns to stop generalizing and connecting too quickly the dots. She cultivates curiosity and wonder and appreciates how powerfully knowledge orients the experts’ seeing. Horowitz describes with graphic eloquence the world that she is re-experiencing, all the while insightfully connecting much of what is going on to established cognitive theory.
Alexandra Horowitz’s eleven walks provided an opportunity to experience new ways of understanding the world Her perspective broadened and her capacity to connect deepened, she became keenly aware that her conscious experience is likely only a fraction of what’s available.
This experiment was primarily about understanding the richness of unintentional moments; moments that often fall outside our calibrations. It was about “valuing the ordinary” as a meaningful determinant of one’s self. It was about embracing the reality that different people often process the same situation differently.
Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking documents a unique framework within which she realizes how narrowly we interpret our world and how singular our experiences can be. Her acute awareness that one’s perspective is richer and more comprehensive when one attempts to see the world through the eyes of others is healthy. For all of us, this is a valuable lesson worth learning, one from which much good can spring.
Other noteworthy books on understanding why we experience the world as we do:
About Looking, by John Berger
About Looking explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. Berger quietly – but fundamentally- alters the vision of anyone who reads his work. (Publisher Marketing)
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel Dennett
Intuition Pumps offers intrepid thinkers--in all walks of life--delicious opportunities to explore their pet ideas with new powers.(Publisher Marketing)
Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow
An examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.(Publisher marketing)
Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph Hallian the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns--but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientistsmiss--and why you can't find the beer in your refrigerator. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error--how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.