Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 7, 2017


Learning how to see

When I teach News and Feature Writing, one of the first exercises I assign my students is to spend 20-30 minutes observing and then to write a short paper about what they've discovered. They are to turn off all their electronic devices and spend that time jotting down the sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes they experience. I tell them to be specific - not that they saw a bird, but a red cardinal; not that they smelled food cooking, but that the aroma of sizzling bacon drew them to the café; not that they heard a loud noise, but that the revving of a motorcycle engine drowned out the voices of the couple on the street corner.

The most surprising thing for most of them is for the first few minutes, they feel lost without being able to check their text messages, Snapchats or emails. But once they "get into" the assignment, they begin to enjoy it.

These thoughts came to mind recently while husband Art and I were walking to the university library. Passing one of the campus’ stately pines, I was taken back to last May when I had followed a similar route. Having heard the soft cooing of a mourning dove that day, I looked into the branches. There were two of the gray-brown birds, both hard to see, for they blended into the similarly-colored bark and branches. One was on a nest.

But I soon noticed how few people looked up from their phones or music players to see what was around them. Granted, that YouTube video or text message each person was watching may have been truly memorable. Yet I couldn't help thinking, “Wow, you’re missing so much!”

That class assignment is intended to counter this "in-my-own-little-world" situation. Observational skills are a journalist's stock in trade. They'll have to write with sufficient enough detail to help their readers, listeners and viewers feel like they are there themselves.

"How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" is a book by Michael J. Gelb I use in that class. Da Vinci was a master painter, as well as a brilliant musician, engineer and philosopher. He encouraged the refinement of all the senses, but in one of his journals, he lamented that the average human "looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking."

Gelb says senses can be enhanced with practice. The chapter "Sensazione (sensation), the Continued Refinement of the Senses, Especially Sight, as the Means to Enliven Experience," has been particularly useful for me. "Saper vedere" - knowing how to see - was one of Da Vinci's mottoes. For him, the eye was "the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature."

While it would be nice if sharpening these skills makes my students more appreciative of the world around them, my reason for having them practice is far more practical. Every good poker player watches for almost imperceptible signs of what other players have in their hands. Every good auto mechanic is alert to the sound that means trouble while being able to dismiss the one that is benign. And a journalist quizzing a public official needs to know when the tiny changes in facial expression might reveal the telling of a fib.

Nowhere is being alert to these small clues more important than in medicine. Art enjoys a magazine called "Discover" and every issue has an article titled "Vital Signs." Almost every one is about a medical case that presented a host of symptoms that led the doctor in the wrong direction while an almost overlooked clue pointed to the root problem.

"The nature of observing starts with observing nature - magic happens every day in the open air," says Stephen James O'Meara in his article - "The Nature of Observing" in the May 2016 issue of the same magazine. He suggests that we can train our eyes to see by using direct vision, not averted vision. He explains by giving an example.

As I write this I'm looking directly at a section of rug beneath my feet. It's a square, tan-colored rug with an interlaced V-shaped pattern throughout. The rug has a khaki border with a tiny tear at one corner and faint stitching running along its inner edge. Can I see more? To find out, I take a second look. This time I see everything I noticed in my first look but in only a fraction of the time. My eyes then start looking for something new, something I might have overlooked. The first thing that stands out is a tiny white stain in the rug near the torn corner; that corner is ever so slightly curled up ... The point is by studying everyday ordinary items in your environment, you can improve your direct observing techniques and apply them ...

O'Meara writes that medical universities now offer courses to help future physicians "learn how to look" through the study of art. The students inspect works of art, he says, "to hone their critical observation skills, which could make all the difference when it comes to interpreting, say, an X-ray or MRI or making an accurate diagnosis."

He said medical students showed a 10 percent improvement in their ability to detect important details after taking the courses.

And all it takes is a little daily practice. We get to enjoy life more, while potentially picking up on details that make us better at our jobs in particular and living in general. Sounds like a win-win to me!


My cell phone camera image of the well-camouflaged mourning dove.



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