The art of seeing

In a world that requires us to be quick thinkers, there is plenty to learn if we take the time to observe and pay more attention to details

May 30, 2020 07:30 pm | Updated 07:30 pm IST

In my previous column, which was the first of a three-part series on the arts and attention, I discussed how Professor Jennifer Roberts of Harvard University both widens and deepens her students’ observational skills through an “immersive attention” exercise. Today, I describe a study on how observational skills acquired through the examination of paintings can transfer to non-art areas as well.

In her book, How Art Works , psychologist Ellen Winner cites a research paper authored by Jacqueline Dolev and her colleagues and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001. Students at Yale Medical School were first given a pre-test involving questions related to medical diagnosis. The test involved looking at photographs of people with different medical conditions. The students were required to describe their observations without necessarily forming a diagnosis. Scores were given based on the number of relevant features that they spotted.

The students were subsequently divided into three groups. Each person in the art group had to observe a preselected painting that involved a human figure for ten minutes. Following the observation period, the student had to verbally describe the figure in the painting to fellow students. Students were coaxed to be specific and provide as much detail as possible.

The second group — called the lecture group — attended a typical medical school lecture class on abdominal X-ray images. The last control group was given instruction on how to gather a patient’s history and perform a physical examination. All three groups were then given a post-test similar to one they had taken earlier.

While the three groups performed similarly on the pre-test, the art group exhibited superior performance on the post-test. The students in the lecture and control group provided haphazard descriptions using broad and unspecific terms. In contrast, those in the art group gave more detailed, pointed and pertinent descriptions.

Power of observation

Winner writes that this study had a significant impact as a number of medical schools across the U.S. started formally incorporating “art observation programmes” to enhance visual observational skills, which are an integral aspect of medical diagnosis. If such a brief intervention could have an impact, it’s worthwhile to examine the transfer effects from a deeper engagement with the arts.

Thus, educators may whet students’ attentional skills by designing exercises that push the envelope of their perception. Just as Roberts makes her students stare at a painting for a considerable duration, teachers may intentionally engineer activities that require patience and perseverance. Instead of merely exhorting distractible and disengaged students to “pay attention,” teachers may design assignments that stretch pupils’ attentional skills in novel ways.

In our fast-paced world, speed is often equated with intelligence. The quick witted is prized more than the slower, more deliberate, reflective thinker. However, our impatience for instantaneous answers also limits how we view the world. Being the first or the fastest has considerable costs, as we fail to notice facets of our world that divulge themselves only when we decelerate. In addition to building conceptual knowledge, a vital goal of education should be the cultivation of habits of mind, like absorption, discernment and deliberation.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

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