Seeing without words

I was listening on my walk today to an interview with Edward Tufte, the celebrated guru of data visualization. He said something I took particular note of, concerning the benefits of concentrating on what you’re seeing, without any other distractions, external or internal. He spoke of his experience of being out walking one day with a friend, in a natural environment, and what it was like to just sit down for some minutes, not talking, in a very quiet place, just looking at the scene. (Ironically, I was also walking in a natural environment, amidst bush, beside a stream - but I was busily occupied listening to this podcast!)

Tufte talked of how we so often let words get between us and what we see. He spoke of a friend who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and how whenever he saw her after that, he couldn’t help but be watchful for symptoms, couldn’t help interpreting everything she said and did through that perspective.

There are two important lessons here. The first is a reminder of how most of us are always rushing to absorb as much information as we can, as quickly as we can. There is, of course, an ocean of information out there in the world, and if we want to ‘keep up’ (a vain hope, I fear!), we do need to optimize our information processing. But we don’t have to do that all the time, and we need to be aware that there are downsides to that attitude.

There is, perhaps, an echo here with Kahnemann’s fast & slow thinking, and another to the idea that quiet moments of reflection during the day can bring cognitive benefits.

In similar vein, then, we’d probably all find a surprising amount of benefit from sometimes taking the time to see something familiar as if it was new — to sit and stare at it, free from preconceptions about what it’s supposed to be or supposed to tell us. A difficult task at times, but if you try and empty your mind of words, and just see, you may achieve it.

The second lesson is more specific, and applies to all of us, but perhaps especially to teachers and caregivers. Sometimes you need to be analytical when observing a person, but if you are interacting with someone who has a label (‘learning-disabled’, ‘autistic’, ‘Alzheimer’s’, etc), you will both benefit if you can sometimes see them without thinking of that label. Perhaps, without the preconception of that label, you will see something unexpected.

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