Amy Herman’s visual intelligence tests and exercises are best done with a friend, because every time they unveil something about perspective that you didn’t expect. Herman created and teaches a course called The Art of Perception to doctors, intelligence analysts and the NYPD, and while her lessons are entertaining for individuals looking to have their minds blown, they are immensely relevant for businesses and even more so for criminal investigations.
Here she uses one of Rene Magritte’s artworks to demonstrate the dangers of assumptions – both in observations, but also in communicating those observations. Her example from a real criminal investigation in Texas will spark an awareness of the different ways people see identical objects and our varying understandings of exactly the same words. Fine-tuning our visual intelligence makes us more careful, considered, and accurate – something so important when lives and money are at stake.
Amy Herman is the author of Visual Intelligence:Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.
Amy Herman: This is an interesting painting and I want you to just take a look at it for a few seconds before we talk about it. I've looked at this painting a thousand times. I use it in my classes, I've seen it in art museums when it's been on view and there is so many subtleties. But one of the assumptions that I made, not as an art historian but just a viewer of art is that what I was looking at on the plate was a piece of meat like a piece of ham with and eye in the center. And when I first showed it at one of my classes I said okay who's going to tell me what they see and someone raised his hand and said that's a big old pancake on the plate. And I would have never considered that it was a pancake. Is it a material distinction? Maybe, maybe not. But he was so sure that it was a pancake and I was so sure that it was a piece of meat, while it might seem like a really subtle distinction it's not if you think about something like eyewitness testimony. Well, he was wearing a red sweater. No, he was wearing a blue sweater. That's a big difference.
And one of the things that reminded me of the Magritte painting there was a crime scene in Texas and they were speaking to a witness and they said what did he look like? What did the suspect look like? And the witness said he had a cowboy hat on. So everyone was looking, and in Texas lots of people wear ten-gallon hats. So they were looking for a suspect with a cowboy hat on. Well, it turns out the suspect was wearing a Dallas Cowboys cap. So the choice of words it wasn't a cowboy hat it was a Dallas Cowboys hat. The idea of a saying what you see and being sure about what you say that's how communication lines can get crossed. And another interesting thing about that Magritte painting that I found fascinating, one of the wonderful things about writing the book is people write to you. They read your book and they send you their own observations and I received an email from a woman who said has anyone ever told you when they look at that painting and describe it to you that the fork to the right of the plate is turned upside down and the tines are facing into the table. I had never noticed that. I had a look at the painting a thousand times. And again, material difference? No. Critical? No. Important? Yes. It's one of those details because if someone said to me describe the silverware in the painting I would've said you have a knife and a fork. And sometimes it's those very small details of the tines facing the table that can bring a whole case together or crack a case or be that one detail that brings all the other pieces together.