Art as data: training the brain to see

| By TMA World


“I’d like to go and see some art,” I said to my wife.  I knew I had surprised her, but she was happy to go along.  “You could use an airing,” she said, knowing I had hardly left my office for days.  I felt the need for my brain to be taken to a different place, a place where my ‘everyday brain’ would be a stranger.  Art – by which I meant visual art – felt like it would be the right medium to shock me into different ways of seeing and thinking.  I was feeling stale.

We ended up at what is called The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.  During the Second World War it had been a real torpedo factory, but it now housed studios for working artists. Not a lot inspired me, but did find an intriguing piece.  It consisted of words from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech painted onto a white board.  On each letter were pins joined together by thread in what I took to be random patterns.  The Korean artist – Hyun Jung Kim ( – was in her studio so I asked her about the significance of the pins; were they meant to signify how Martin Luther King’s words had become pinned like dead butterflies in our continuing history of racial intolerance.  The answer was “no” – the pins were positioned on each letter to convey their meaning in braille – the tactile writing system for the blind.  Suddenly my brain was in a different place.  “That’s wonderful,” I said.  “It reminds me of trying to reach across languages and other cultural differences to understand each other’s worlds.”  Soon she was telling me of her experiences in coming to the USA and misunderstanding all that was around her.  Very little made sense in this new world.  She could hear, but not really understand.  She could look, but not really see.

Many of us depend on ‘seeing’ for doing our jobs effectively.  We have to notice details that can so easily be missed.  Think of police at crime scenes, first responders at accident sites, doctors working with patients, and even executives negotiating in a different culture.  If we miss details a life can be lost, a crime goes unsolved, a wrong diagnosis gets made, or a business opportunity is lost.  Steve Jobs once said, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

One of the most interesting people in the world of ‘learning to see’ is Amy E. Herman.  In an interview about her learning programs in the April 26,2016 edition of The New York Times, she says, “I’ve had people who say ‘I hate art,’ and I say, “That’s not relevant . . . This is not a class about Pollack versus Picasso.  I’m not teaching you about art today; I’m using art as a new set of data, to help you clear the   slate and use the skills you use on the job.  My goal when you walk out the door is that you’re thinking differently about the job.”  Her clients include police departments, doctors and medical students, and the military.
She challenges participants to them to tell her what they see, not what they think.  Too often, what we think is only seen through the lens of a job and our habitual biases.  We have to be able to see what matters.  She was inspired by a program created by a dermatology professor at Yale who used works of art to improve students’ patient observation skills.  A clinical study found that the students who took the course had diagnostic skills that were 56 percent better than those who didn’t.  One undercover FBI agent credited Ms. Herman’s course with helping him collect evidence against a Mob-controlled garbage collection syndicate resulting in thirty-four convictions and the government seizure of $60 to $100 million in assets.

Why use works of art? Unlike people in the street, works of art don’t pass by quickly.  I know that when I people-watch, I don’t know if my observations are accurate.  I’m not Sherlock Holmes, and I’m not going to chase people down the street to ask if I ‘read’ their lives correctly.  As Ms. Herman says in her book, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life, with works of art we have answers to: the who, what, where, when, and why?  What captures our attention often is the new, the different, but is that the information that matters.  We often miss the simple, straightforward, and familiar.  You may have seen cop shows where a senior detective asks a junior, “Tell me what you see,” and the junior usually states the obvious –  “He was stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife.”  That doesn’t provide the senior detective with a different perspective or a new angle for seeing the scene.

Before taking a group of police officers or medical students around an art museum, Ms. Herman will show them a slide of a painting, e.g. Mrs. John Winthrop, a 1773 portrait by the artist John Singleton Copley – a painting considered to be a masterpiece of fine detail.  In the painting, a woman is sitting at a table holding small pieces of fruit.  When asked to say what they see, every participant will say there is a women holding fruit, but 80 percent will miss the mahogany table and the woman’s reflection in the table’s veneer.

If you are at a loss over what to do over the holidays, don’t look for any distraction on your smart phone.  Find links to art, and ask yourself questions like:

• What do I see here?
• What is happening?
• What are the relationships?
• What questions does the piece of art raise?
• What am I likely to have missed if I hadn’t spent more time observing?
• What can I say about how my biases have influenced my seeing?


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