Sherlock Holmes, already the best-known character in modern fiction, has enjoyed an even better run since the Arthur Conan Doyle copyright ran out. Holmes and magnifying glass are the inseparable duo that seemingly forever mark the detecting profession and its mindful observation skills, combining imagination with knowledge and applying analytical tools to solve complex, wicked problems. The Holmes legacy focuses on intelligently viewing the world, pattern recognition, and making sense of what’s out there – talents inherent in cultural analysis.
Maria Konnikova’s excellent treatment of this process, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), takes apart the three stages of detection—observation, imagination, and deduction—to show the brilliance of the Holmes method through leading cases in the canon. Her casebook is a master class in learning about the processes implicit in thinking, decision-making, planning, and action-taking. This is the difference between vision, the human talent for insight into the past, present, and future based on visual memory, and just registering what’s on view around us avoiding attentional blindness, and related practices basic to mental well-being of the “present mind.”
Seventy percent of our sense receptors are around the eyes. But vision as processed looking doesn’t happen in the eye only – it only occurs after processing by the brain. Our limbic system is constantly building our emotional world as the structure that filters the input of the senses through experience and cultural values. Our emotional sorting device, the limbic brain, is always leading our thinking and responding. Everything in sight carries an emotional charge. Our entire emotional array—geared to social and emotional goals—is set up to see risk or reward, opportunity or danger, play, love, joy, fear, uncertainty, or doubt—depending on just how our brain codes whatever we see as positive, negative, neutral, or more rarely, to put on hold for future reference.
Why do we see, but don’t observe, as Holmes is constantly reminding Watson? It’s not that difficult: because seeing is a physiological act of the senses, whereas perception is the brain-based outcome that follows the inner processing of light and image. What we perceive doesn’t reflect what’s in front of us—nor what others perceive. Looking and observing is a complex process that involves many factors: what we expect to see, matching that with our entire seeing history, and the cultural (social) world in our heads—important in setting the ideals of what we prefer to see, what we most fear seeing, and what we think others are seeing. All these trigger our immediate reactions.
Looking differs from mindful seeing, as Jim Gilmore shows recently in Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills (2016), his metacognitive treatment of the sight experience under various modes of aided perception. In opposition to routine autopilot approaches to looking, Gilmore’s six-looking-glass toolbar is a tactical lever to extend this seeing, breaking out ways of observing and their concomitant benefits for raising awareness, macro to micro: from the broad-range binoculars (wide-shot) to magnifiers and microscopes that home in on details (close-up) that open up yet more landscapes to explore. This is a working philosophy of observation to upgrade any effort, from pedestrian examination to innovative seeking, using these powers of discovery when ordinary seeing isn’t nearly keen or deep enough. This guide to enhancing observation also grows a most valuable resource: attention and focus, the wellspring of analytical ability. William James, father of psychology, called engaged attention the root of judgment, character, and will. Seeing better has powerful outcomes: a means to think better, discover potentials, inquire deeper, and make better decisions.
Gilmore’s section on rose-colored-glasses looking is ingenious in its view of perceiving potential—what isn’t visible except as “gems and gaps,” the baseline of creative perceiving to envision what isn’t yet but could be. That’s the imagination function prompted by “power vision.” He cites the rare ability of top sports-talent scouts like Tony Lucadello for his legendary spotting of ball players before anyone else could—an exercise in observation with a positive bias. The evolution of tableware showcases the same ability to envision value beyond present limits—in developing the fork out of the hunter’s blade. Reading between the lines of what is already evident, but far from perfect, to see innovation, combines observation with imagination—to create and discover entirely new stars and tools.
Back in Mastermind, Konnikova details the power outcomes from better seeing, showing ways we can learn to attune our efforts and attention to rediscover the world out there beyond habit, routine, and mindlessness—to take us from passive absorption to active awareness. But that transition demands a more attentive, curious, and engaged mindset to make our subconscious processing far more conscious.