Last week I got a puppy. In preparation for the blessed event, I read a book by Alexandra Horowitz called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs Smell, See, and Know. If you are interested in dogs, I commend it to you. It is full of fascinating insights, not only about dogs’ perception of the world, but also about human beings’ perception.
As you probably remember from Psych 101, human beings are “gestalt” thinkers and lookers. When we survey a scene, we don’t typically pay attention to every detail—even when we think that’s what we’re doing—but instead see the big picture, the whole pattern or shape of things (gestalt is German for “shape”). As Alexandra Horowitz puts it, “Every time we enter a room, we take it in in broad strokes: if everything is where we expect it to be…we stop looking.”
Given the complexity of the human world, gestalt seeing and thinking can be a huge advantage. Imagine how overwhelming a trip to the grocery store would be if you were actually seeing and processing every sensory stimulus that presented itself. But the disadvantage of gestalt seeing and thinking is that we tend to see what we expect to see or what we are looking for rather than what is actually there. At the big-picture, philosophical level, this is true in the way we interpret facts. But it’s also true in a more immediate sense, in the way we perceive visual images and other sensory inputs. By way of example, I offer this basketball-related awareness test (it’s only a minute long and well worth watching):
Mystery-writers, magicians, and international spies do all kinds of interesting things with this idea that our expectations can make us blind to what is right in front of us.
Understanding our tendency toward gestalt seeing is helpful to every writer, not just writers of mysteries, magicians’ manuals, and spy-thrillers. For one thing, it helps you know which details to include and which to omit when you depict a scene. When I talk to writers about the importance of using concrete detail, I am often asked how one knows the difference between too little detail, too much detail, and just the right amount of detail. An answer to that question starts with gestalt seeing. You know your reader wouldn’t notice and process every detail if she were present in the scene. So you need think in terms of which details she would notice, and give her those. And bear in mind that the details you notice in any given setting vary greatly according to the context. If you are tracking down a killer in a grocery store, you will notice one set of details. If you are tracking down raisin bran in that same grocery store, you will notice a whole other set of details.
I’ve been talking about human perception, but it was dog perception that started me down this path. So let’s return to dog perception. Whereas we are gestalt lookers, dogs apparently aren’t. We conserve valuable (and finite) mental energy and attention by learning not to see much of what is right in front of us. When I look out on my front yard, I don’t usually say “Look! Trees!” Those same trees were here yesterday and the day before that and all the seven thousand or so days I’ve lived in this house. It would be exceedingly difficult to sit on my front porch and write this letter if I were constantly being amazed by the trees. Dogs, on the other hand, do seem to be amazed by things they’ve seen a thousand times. (This fact may help explain why so many dogs are unfocused and under-productive.)
As Alexandra Borowitz points out, a human being’s commute to work is pretty automatic. You notice the landmarks that tell you where to turn, but not much else. “There is reason to believe that this is not how dogs think,” writes Borowitz. “The walk to the park becomes familiar over time, but they don’t stop looking. They are much more struck by what they actually see, the immediate details, than what they expect to see.”
I love that idea—of seeing what you actually see rather than what you expect to see. That’s hard for us human beings. But if you pay attention, the world is forever surprising. No wonder dogs have such a good time.
If you’ve read this weekly letter for many weeks, you’ve heard me talk about the importance of giving the reader something she can’t get for herself. That may seem daunting, even arrogant: what do you have to give that nobody else has to give? Well, your attention, for one thing. Your reader isn’t paying attention. None of us are. Or, rather, we’re all paying attention to something besides the thing you want to show us. We’re mostly just seeing what we expect to see. If you can look like a dog—that is, if you can let yourself be struck by what you actually see rather than what you expect to see—you can surprise, delight, and give the rest of us something that we can’t (or won’t) get for ourselves.