Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change York Life

by Amy E. Herman

“Leonardo da Vinci attributed all of his scientific and artistic accomplishments to the same concept, which he called saper vedere—‘knowing how to see.’ We might also call his gift ‘visual intelligence.’”

Amy Herman, who has degrees in law and art history, teaches a course called the Art of Perception to police officers and FBI agents. The book is about how to assess, analyze, and articulate what we observe. To practice these skills, the author presents numerous works of art. She also discusses real-life crime and business cases.

Part I: Assess

SLOW DOWN. “The average museum visitor spends seventeen seconds viewing each work of art… Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow, it just means taking a few minutes to absorb what we are seeing. Details, patterns, and relationships take time to register. Nuances and new information can be missed if we rush past them.”

In the words of special-effects designer and MythBuster host Adam Savage: “Rushing leads to mistakes, and mistakes slow you down far more than slowing down does.”

AVOID THE SUBJECTIVE. “One way to ensure that our observations remain objective is to quantify them by counting, estimating, or using measuring tools. ‘Small’ might mean different things to different people… ‘Small’ is subjective; ‘one inch across’ is not.”

BALANCE THE DETAILS AND THE BIG PICTURE. “As you master your ability to capture key details, be careful not to let the hunt for meaningful minutiae override other important information.”

The author presents her COBRA acronym: Camouflaged, One, Break, Realign, Ask.

CAMOUFLAGUED. “We are drawn instinctually to the new, the innovative, and the exciting. To see the things that are truly hiding in plain sight because they appear ordinary, we must consciously look for the details our eyes might have skipped over at first glance. To do this, we need to look again. We need to look at the entire scene, all the way to the edges and back again. Then, if possible, we must try to change the item or scene by repositioning it. Finally, we should reposition ourselves. Get closer then step back. Walk around to change our perspective. An unusual angle can help uncover a not-so-unusual detail.”

ONE THING AT A TIME. “To improve our chances of finding ‘hidden’ details, we need to keep our focus sharp and single-minded, paying attention solely to this task. In our multitasking world where juggling multiple things at once is the norm, concentrating on just one thing can seem counterintuitive, but in reality multitasking leads to less effective and efficient work.”

TAKE A BREAK. “Psychologists believe that we can keep our cognitive control system from losing vigilance and help retain long-term focus by simply taking breaks.”

REALIGN EXPECTATIONS. “We often miss the unexpected because we’re too focused on what we think should be there… When doctors or police officers or teachers say, ‘I’ve seen this before,’ they’re wrong. They may have seen or handled similar things or cases or people but not the new one in front of them… There is no such thing as the same pneumonia, the same second-grader, or the same business deal. Every person and situation is unique. To treat them otherwise is to deceive them and ourselves.”

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE. “Finally, since every person perceives the world differently, you might want to enlist help in your search. Bring someone in to look with fresh eyes, preferably someone with a different perspective, background, and opinions from yours.”

Part II: Analyze

“Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” — Nobel Prize winning biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi

“Instead of defaulting to what’s right in front of us, we must keep shifting our perspective. Doing so can help us find more information, more of the story, the missing piece, the right path, the true intent, or even the way out.”

GO AND SEE. “The importance of seeing things from all angles doesn’t begin and end with investigative work; it’s just as critical for any business that trades in process, products, or people. It’s the key principle behind Toyota’s famous genchi genbutsu concept—which translates to ‘go and see’: the idea that the only way to get the comprehensive picture of a scene, see a process as a whole, and absorb as many details as possible is for managers to leave their offices, get out from behind their computers, and physically go to where the work is being done. Many manufacturing companies have adopted this in a practice called ‘gemba walks’—gemba in Japanese meaning ‘the actual place.’ In gemba walks, employees go to the place that matters most to their job, be it where the product is made or sold or even used, to better understand their work.”

“Detroit’s Beaumont Health System hospitals have kaizen (Japanese word for ‘improvement’) teams of employees who walk around the grounds outside of their normal departments to find sustainable savings. One group saw that the sprinkler systems on the campus were watering unnecessary areas: fixing that and switching to low-flow sprinkler heads saved the company $180,000 and 500,000 gallons of water in six months. ‘Unless you go out and walk,’ says Kay Winokaur, a nurse and Beaumont’s vice president of quality, safety, and accreditation, ‘you won’t notice these things.’”

WHAT’S MISSING? Former CIA agent Richards J. Heuer presents this approach in his book The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis: “To help organize data and find the most important elements of any situation, you ask three questions: What do I know? What don’t I know? If I could get more information, what do I need to know?”

Part III: Articulate

SLOPPY LANGUAGE. “On July 25, 2001, eighty-five days after she disappeared, dozens of DC police officers assembled to search the sprawling natural area. Orders were to look one hundred yards off all the park’s roads. By the end of the day, they called off the search, having found nothing.

It was later determined that the actual order was to explore one hundred yards of all the park’s trails. Someone in the chain of command had changed a crucial word. The assumption that ‘roads’ and ‘trails’ were the same thing dramatically shrank the search area. Levy’s body wasn’t discovered for another ten months—seventy-nine yards off one of the park’s trails. A single miscommunicated word likely led to the delay of discovery and meant most of the forensic evidence that could have positively identified her killer was gone.”

BE SPECIFIC. “Lieutenant Tom Holt, who coordinated the NYPD’s Grand Larceny Task Force, changed the way he communicated with his twenty-four plainclothes officers.” Instead of describing a suspect as “‘dressed in black,’ he explained, ‘I might say he’s wearing a black wool hat, a black leather coat with black fur trim, a black hoodie sweatshirt, and Timberlands.’ This new specificity helped his department apprehend more of the shoplifters, pickpockets, and purse snatchers who regularly stalked the Time Square area.”

EMOTIONS. “Particularly in stressful situations, people will be emotionally sensitive. Communicating emotionally with them will make them answer in kind. Emotion volleying does not accomplish concrete work. Instead of focusing on the information or task at hand, emotional can cause us to stew over the personal.”

Psychologist and emotion researcher Paul Ekman “recommends being aware of our facial expressions, our body language, and any tension we might be carrying. If you catch yourself clenching your jaw or tightening your shoulders, use it as a sign that you might be emoting unwittingly. If you find that to be the case, do the same thing we do when looking at art: step back, assess, and evaluate. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I emotional? What could have triggered it? Did I misunderstand something? We must be aware of our own emotional triggers and signals because other people around us can see them, sometimes before we do.”

NEUTRAL LANGUAGE. “Instead of saying ‘X is wrong,’ reframe it: ‘Is it true that…?’ or ‘Did you mean to..?’ Instead of asking someone, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ which immediately implies a conflict or problem, ask instead, ‘Can you help me with something?’ reframe the issue in the best possible terms, and the response will be more positive.”

KEEP YOUR COOL. “We’re on the way to becoming objective-communication experts. But it’s equally critical to address good communication when the tables are turned, when we are on the receiving end of an emotional tirade and need the perfect response to salvage an otherwise untenable situation.

First and foremost, no matter how upsetting the communication is, do not react emotionally, orally or in writing. Instead, do what you did when you were becoming emotionally self-aware: absorb, process, let the negative feelings flow, then let it go. It’s probably harder to put emotion aside when you’re the one who’s feeling insulted, especially if it’s coming from someone above you, but it’s the only way to get ahead and win respect.”

“Approach the difficult in life the same way you approach the difficult in art. Take your time and gather the facts. Analyze them and prioritize them. Take a step back and consider things from alternative perspectives. Consider your body language and nonverbal communication and that of others. Be objective, accurate, and precise. And know that the result of learning how to separate the subjective emotions from objective communication is confidence.”

Amy Herman also wrote a version of this book for kids titled smART: Use Your Eyes to Boost Your Brain.

Herman, Amy E. Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. Mariner Books, 2017. Buy from

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Selected books mentioned:

Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer

Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford

Getting Things Done by David Allen