Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking

Cross-Readings 2: Alexandra Horowitz “On Looking”

Technically, this was not quite as cross a reading as #1, but after “Mastermind” calling on its readers to learn to really observe, á Sherlock Holmes, Alexandra Horowitz’ “On Looking. Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” / “On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation” provides the perfect counterpoint and follow-up.

Alexandra Horowitz, On LookingWhere “Mastermind” is a call to arms for better looking – or rather, as the focus there goes, better thinking that sees more of what it sees by jumping to conclusions less – “On Looking” is more focused on how often we do not actually see.

On-Looking-2We run on one or the other version of a personal autopilot when we are in familiar circumstances. And even when we open our eyes and minds to one new thing, we may be ignorant of others.
“On the phone, worrying over dinner, listening to others or to the to-do lists replaying in our own heads, we miss the world making itself available to be observed. And we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us.”

But, we do this because we, at times, need to: “[W]e summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance–all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day.”

[Funnily, and illustrating perfectly why I love to cross-read books, one of the basic conceits in Douglas Preston’s novel “The Kraken Project” is that an AI may need to be able to similarly apprise a scene at a glance, so to speak, in order to function in a novel environment…]

Even when we are in a new environment and excited about all that is to be discovered, we will overlook those things we haven’t learned to see.

That is exactly the second point we learn, and see illustrated through Horowitz’ learning to see with and as others who are experts in certain knowledge – and with that, in seeing certain things.

They may suffer “déformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession” all the same, but that also means that they see certain things, because they attend to them, which a non-expert wouldn’t see. And Horowitz picked some fascinating experts, from her little boy to a geologist, from an expert in fonts and typefaces to her dog…

On her walk with the geologist, I found her going straight to a discussion that perfectly links up with the ideas discussed before, on learning and seeing, and whether IT makes us smarter or dumber. The verdict on the latter has to remain unpronounced, especially in such a uselessly general phrasing.
For each and every one of us as an individual and learner, though, it is clear that “[e]xpertise leads to the ability to acquire more expertise.”

Once we have learned a little about something, it is easier for us to learn more about it. The more we learn about more things, the easier it becomes to learn still more. The more specialized our knowledge, the deeper we can plunge into it with greater ease.
IT can make it easier to jump into learning, repeat things we want to remember, and even ask others for some help. It can help get details right rather than have to remember them all, too.

via-natura-mica
After the mineralogy course, even on the Via Natura ultramarathon, I found myself observing what made the path up one mountain glitter so much…

The idea that we can just quickly look up whatever we want whenever we need it, and therefore don’t really need to remember anything, let alone go through the struggle of developing an expertise in any field of knowledge, however, is a major obstacle we’d better get over quickly, not a deep advantage.
Before you learn at least a little about something, you will not even notice that you don’t know anything about it; you will not even see it.
(A mineralogy course had just given me that insight a little while ago. It is considered one of the most useless and boring of courses, but if you delve into it, you can notice that its subject matter is always all around you, and you come up with ever more questions about it.)

“Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation.” If you do not expect to see something – or, not having learned anything about it, don’t even know that there would be anything to expect to see – you will most likely not see it. Your eyes may already filter it out as irrelevant or non-existent, even before the brain may get a chance to register that maybe there was something there.
(The opposite of that may well be the feeling of truth talked about recently…)

A very pretty example of how learning and expertise go – and grow – together came in the context of a medical-diagnostic look, which is just the sort of thing we have heard from Sherlock Holmes: seeing a person and telling something about their condition.
(In fact, as Horowitz describes, it was an actual doctor and professor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s who inspired the author, thanks to his ability to make diagnoses and other deductions based on the way a patient moved.)

Movement expertise, even if of somewhat different kinds, is shared by ballerinas and capoeiristas. And according to neuroimaging, they have the greatest activity of mirror neurons (which provide empathy) when they watch their own kind of movement. However, their neurons still exhibit greater activity when they watch each other’s kind of movement than those of non-dancers or non-capoeiristas show.

Ballet and Capoeira - as per a Saatchi&Saatchi ad campaign for Voltaren for the Netherlands
Ballet and Capoeira – as per a Saatchi&Saatchi ad campaign for Voltaren for the Netherlands. Not that I love to share advertising, but then again, it’s strangely fitting considering how easily we can observe and deduce what ails someone…

So, you are better at recognizing and empathetically ‘thinking’ something you have an expertise in, “but it builds on something we all share: a propensity to feel others’ movements in our own bodies.”

Thanks to this, we can feel and (with some knowledge behind it) recognize what may be ailing others, and we can deduce quite a bit thanks to it. Or go wrong if we are too quick to jump to conclusions… if we even really see, without “the way that knowledge orients … looking–an ability to ‘see what [you] see.'”

Snowy_Owl_from_Yarrell_History_of_British_Birds_1843
“Snowy Owl.” Enough said?

Another observation that is only too interesting for our ability, and failure, to make ourselves at home in this world is all about the way we deal with what we see by labeling it.
Actually, even though this is “On Looking,” this example comes in the context of what we hear rather than see, with the influence the name we give to something – here, something that makes a sound, such as a bird calling – has on our thinking about it.

“The first thing we tend to ask is, what is that? To identify it–to name it–gets us no closer to understanding the creatures we have spotted, but it is often taken as a stand-in for that understanding. So named, the animals move on, and we move on…”

We are right back to the point made in Mastermind, too: We often don’t really see something, we see our idea of it, slap a label on it that tells us what it is, and thus having assured ourselves that we know it because we gave it its name, we go right on… and don’t even notice that what we saw was our idea of what something was (or, as so often happens, of what someone was like), but not the reality.
All we did was slap a label on it – and promptly mistake that label of our own devising for the truth of it.

Ultimately, though, the take-away is a positive one.

Just as we all can feel something of someone else’s movements because we can move ourselves, we can start seeing – and learning – because we can all see and learn, expertise or not, Horowitz concludes:
“What allowed me to see the bits that I would have otherwise missed was not the expertise of my walkers, per se; it was their simple interest in attending.”

If you just want to see, you can see. Indeed. An excellent recommendation. You’ll only get there when you quit with the autopilot that says “I know enough, I’ve seen it all” and remember to open your eyes wide, though.
So, come with, quit being the tourist of your life, make yourself at home.

Cross-read book (also see Cross-Reading 1):

Honorary Mention:

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