Half of people who look at this photograph of the Bronx don't notice the giant C in the background. Redux Pictures/The New York Times/photo by Suzanne deChillo/courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A lot about being aware of our surroundings, for starters, argues a new book.

During your commute each morning, your brain is playing tricks on you.

It’s in response to a feeling common among urban dwellers: sensory overload. “When you live in a city, you’re barraged with all these sights and sounds,” says Amy E. Herman, the author of the new book, Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. “Your brain can’t take in all that information.”

So it puts blinders in place. “You focus on what you need to get from point A to point B—that’s it,” Herman says.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin

Sounds efficient, but “turning a blind eye isn’t always a good thing,” Herman says. In Visual Intelligence, she argues that “when we walk through the world on autopilot, our eyes might seem to take everything in, but in reality we are seeing far less that we could if we were paying closer attention.”

Herman has a trick for breaking out of that way of thinking, and it has to do with looking at art. Not just glancing for a few seconds, but really observing: cataloguing all of the details and how they inform the larger picture.

Herman, a lawyer and former museum educator at The Frick Collection, had long been fascinated with art, but also with the gaps between reality and eyewitness testimonies. How could people fail to see things that were so clearly there? She started diving into the neuroscience of perception, and discovered that it’s actually possible to train the brain to become better at seeing more sharply and more quickly through patient analysis and observation, often when we’re looking at things we assume will be familiar or unremarkable.

In the book, Herman acknowledges that “looking at old paintings and sculptures is definitely not the first thing most people think of when I tell them we’re going to get their neurons firing and increase their brain-processing speed.” They imagine something more high-tech, involving Google Glass, at the very least. But the point, Herman says, is that “art doesn’t walk away.” It’s a stationary, ever-growing trove of visual material that engages the same tools necessary for assessing more seemingly complex situations.

Herman has brought her museum-based classes in the art of perception to teachers, social workers, doctors, and myriad government agencies, but its instruction in situational awareness is “a necessity for anyone living in the city,” she says.

“Describing what you see in a painting of a woman wearing a foot-long, four-layered starched collar,” Herman writes, “uses the same skill set as describing what you see in a foreign market or international airport.”

Mistress and Maid, Johannes Vermeer. (© The Frick Collection)

But active perception, Herman tells CityLab, should by no means be limited to unfamiliar situations. The pull toward autopilot is strongest when navigating well-trod paths, but that tendency can lead to missed opportunities. In Visual Intelligence, Herman describes how one of her students would walk the same path through her neighborhood every day, listening to music, just trying to log her 30 minutes of exercise. When she took her earbuds out and decided to re-engage her senses along the same route, “she noticed the cracks in the sidewalk, handprints in cement she’d never seen, a secret bike path.”

And there’s a safety element to active perception, too. When you know the places and people you pass each day, you notice when they’re not there, which could indicate that something’s amiss, Herman adds. Herman makes a habit of familiarizing herself to her surroundings via transportation. From her busy Union Square apartment building, she knows where all the subway entrances are, what buses run through the neighborhood, and where they let her off. She also knows the names of the cashiers at her local grocery store, and the man who hands out copies of AM New York on her way to the train. That level of familiarity with your surroundings, Herman says, “creates a visual roadmap for yourself.” From that solid visual baseline, “you can develop a heightened sensitivity to other things that are happening around you,” Herman says.

While it may seem overwhelming to engage this thoroughly with the hectic urban milieu, Herman says that the key is to set preconceptions aside and “use your inherent senses of observation and perception.” To do so, she recommends this trick in Visual Intelligence:

Go outside at lunchtime, plant yourself in one spot, and practice observing every single thing that crosses your visual path. Doing so will help train your eyes to look beyond what’s right in front of you or what you are used to seeing.

It’s just like how you look at a work of art: you get up close and figure out the details, then step back and the big picture is that much clearer. “People don’t think of art as data,” Herman says. “But look at how much we have of it. We have public art, we have graffiti, we have museums—and it all gives us a new way of looking at the world.”

JR (b. 1983). Women Are Heroes Project, Brasil. Action in the slums Morro da Providencia, tree, moon, horizontal, Rio de Janeiro, 2008. (L'Agence VU, Paris, France/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perspective, Change Your Life, $28, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  2. A woman stands in front of a house.

    How Housing Wealth Transferred From Families to Corporations

    The Great Housing Reset has led to growing numbers of single-family homes shifting from owner-occupied housing to investment vehicles for large corporations.

  3. Life

    Why More Places Are Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Not Columbus Day

    The official celebration of Native Americans represents the fruits of a decades-long effort that’s playing out in city halls and statehouses.

  4. Transportation

    Why New York City Stopped Building Subways

    Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.

  5. Environment

    A 13,235-Mile Road Trip for 70-Degree Weather Every Day

    This year-long journey across the U.S. keeps you at consistent high temperatures.