Brain Pickings

The Art of Looking: How to Live with Presence, Break the Tyranny of Productivity, and Learn to See Our Everyday Wonderland

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“When you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

For my book club collaboration with The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s online oasis of intelligence and idealism, I had the pleasure of sitting down with cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz to discuss her immeasurably wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — one of the best books of 2013 and among the most interesting I’ve ever read, a provocative exploration of how powerfully our experience of “reality” is framed by the limitations of our attention and sensory awareness.

Our conversation ranges from Alice in Wonderland to John Cage to Susan Sontag, by way of dog cognition and productivity, in the service of understanding how different minds expose the many everyday wonderlands hidden before our eyes. Highlights below — please enjoy.

On the idea that everything is interesting if you look closer:

When you look closely at anything familiar, it kind of transmogrifies into something unfamiliar — the sort of cognitive version of saying your name again and again and again, or a word again and again and again, and getting a different sound of it after you’ve repeated it forty times.

On the notion that “a writer is a professional observer”:

I am, professionally, an observer of animals — by which I mean nonhuman animals. I actually have been less interested in looking at people… But of course, as it turns out, the human animal is also infinitely more complex than I give us credit for. And I appreciated — a lot — the fact that, at the end of this book, I could take a walk with anybody — it didn’t have to be an expert… — and I became more appreciative of anyone’s perspective. If you can just get somebody to talk about what they see when they’re walking down the street, they will almost inevitably be seeing something different than you. Because they are a different person, and there’s a whole background there. And, actually, I think that is a kind of writerly trick — it’s sitting in the restaurant and making up stories about the people who sit around you… being interested in [them] and being able to imagine, backwards, their stories.

On the parallels between Horowitz’s book and mindfulness meditation, and the urgency of her overarching message in a culture that often, to our detriment, prioritizes productivity over presence as a form of toxic modern self-hypnosis:

I am not encouraging productivity — and I don’t mind that that’s the case. I value the moments in my life that are productive, certainly, but only the ones that are productive and also present. Writing the book was “productive,” literally — it was a product; it was also an enjoyable engagement in the present. So it doesn’t have to be either-or.

But [I have also] spent time in a job where you then wonder, a year later, what happened to that year. And if I had bothered to sit on the subway, commuting to my office, looking — looking — I think that those moments would have been memorialized, and I would know what happened to that year…

I don’t mean to be testifying against productivity per se, but I do see that it’s certainly mindless, the way that we approach there being only one route to living one’s life. And it is within us, this capacity to alter that — at any moment, even within that framework — to change your state.

Horowitz turns the table on the productivity question:

MP: What’s interesting about the productivity dogma is that we live in a culture where we worship work ethic — by a very narrow definition — as some sort of this grand virtue. And we define it as showing up, day after day after day. But I often think that that’s the surest way to lull ourselves into a kind of trance of passivity, where we show up but we’re absent from our own lives. And I think one of the most beautiful things you do is you show how we can be present in our own lives, through these eleven different people and their perspectives.

AH: Thank you. You know, you are thought of as being, probably, an excessively productive person — again, in that literal sense. You have such a fertile mind — would you say you are not productive? Or, how do you achieve your productivity?

MP: I think productivity, as we define it, is flawed to begin with, because it equates a process with a product. So, our purpose is to produce — as opposed to, our purpose is to understand and have the byproduct of that understanding be the “product.” For me, I read, and I hunger to know… I record, around that, my experience of understanding the world and understanding what it means to live a good life, to live a full life. Anything that I write is a byproduct of that — but that’s not the objective. So, even if it may have the appearance of “producing” something on a regular basis, it’s really about taking in, and what I put out is just … the byproduct.

AH: Right. When I went on these walks, I didn’t know what I would get. That was important, also.

MP: It’s kind of like going down the rabbit hole but digging it in the process, too.

On Looking is an absolutely magnificent, mind-expanding, spiritually enriching read — sample it here and here. You can follow the Dish book club here and join me in supporting The Dish which, like Brain Pickings, is ad-free and supported by readers.

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