Open your eyes. Turn on your ears. Engage all of your senses, and carefully, painstakingly observe the world around you.
That’s the message that Amy Herman delivered last week when she spoke to an engaged, enthusiastic audience in Jeanne D’Arc Auditorium. The event was presented by the Evaleen Neufeld Initiative in the Liberal Arts at St. Catherine University in conjunction with the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. The group gathered on a chilly November evening to hear Herman talk about her work teaching groups from universities, hospitals, police departments, the U.S. military and the Department of Defense to strengthen their observational intelligence. The talk was an overview of her seminar “The Art of Perception.” It was followed by a signing of her bestselling book Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.
An attorney and art historian, Herman was head of education at the Frick Collection in New York City when she was asked to lead a course for medical students.
“The idea was to take the students out of the hospital and into an art museum,” Herman said, “to teach them how to analyze works of art so that when they returned to their medical studies, they’d be better observers.”
Her course was so successful at expanding the medical students’ observational abilities that a friend encouraged her to contact the New York Police Department and offer to teach the same course to detectives. Herman thought it was a good idea, and called the NYPD one Monday morning, offering up her services. She was transferred many times until she was finally connected to a deputy commissioner, who was intrigued by her idea.
“Six months later,” Herman told the audience, “I was leading NYPD homicide detectives in my workshops.”
From there, Herman’s workshops caught fire. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article about her work with the NYPD, and after that, she said, “I got calls from all over the world — from the FBI, from the CIA and Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. They all said, ‘Ms. Herman, teach us how to see like those cops in New York.'”
Herman’s St. Catherine talk was a highly interactive experience. She projected images of artworks on a large screen, and asked attendees to break into small groups of two or three. She then asked one or two members of each group to close their eyes, while the remaining group member had 45 seconds to describe an image Herman projected on the screen. The listeners were asked to hold a mental image of what was being described.
“I want you to see what it’s like to completely focus on what a person is saying to you,” Herman instructed. “And for the describers, I’m going to show you something you’ve never seen before and I want you to communicate what you are seeing with clarity, precision, objectivity when you realize that someone is relying on you for the information.”
Then the roles were reversed. The exercise, Herman said, was not meant to “trick” participants, but rather to give them an opportunity to stretch their ability to observe, to describe and listen closely to one another.
“I’m trying to give you information about how to be observant,” she said, “and how to turn those observations into astute, accurate and precise communication.”
Then Herman projected an image that felt unclear to most of the members of the audience. She asked everyone to raise their hands, and then lower them as they recognized the object. Many kept their hands in the air, even as she gave clues to what the object could be, such as, “It is a mammal with four legs.”
Herman eventually revealed that the image was an overexposed picture of a cow.
“This is not an optical illusion,” Herman said. “This is not a trick of the eye. It is a visual exercise developed by a man named Dr. Samuel Renshaw. It is called the Renshaw Cow. He developed visual exercises during WWII to help Navy pilots discern enemy warcraft faster.“
Herman explained that she often uses this exercise in her seminar as a way to illustrate to participants that “no two people see anything the same way.”
The evening progressed in this manner, with Herman projecting a series of images on the screen, and asking audience members to interact with each other — and the art — in a variety of innovative ways. Throughout the presentation, she stressed the importance of honing keen observational skills.
This, Herman said, was key to surviving and thriving in our increasingly fast-paced, digital world.
Herman said that the most important image of the night was a portrait of Mrs. John Winthrop. Herman said that many viewers might comment that the portrait is lovely, but unremarkable. She asked attendees to take a closer look at the painting.
The most remarkable thing about about the painting was the beautiful reflection in the polished table placed in front of Mrs. Winthrop.
“The reflection in the mahogany table is hiding in plain sight,” Herman said. “Something that is critical, like that reflection, it just falls off our radar. That is dangerous.”
This looking for the smallest of details, the special element that sets the seemingly ordinary apart from the extraordinary, is a key skill that Herman hopes to teach everyone she comes across.
“Don’t let the coffee table get you,” Herman told her audience. “Things hide in plain sight and it’s dangerous.”