Editor's Choice

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life

May 19, 2016


Amy E. Herman has turned her wildly successful class on the art of perception into a book perfectly suited for observing, surviving, and getting the most out of business and in life today's fast moving and ever-changing world.

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life by Amy E. Herman, An Eamon Dolan Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.00, Hardcover, May 2016, ISBN 9780544381056

It all began when she brought a course created by a Yale professor of dermatology to medical students in New York City in an effort to improve their patient observation skills. A study of the results found that the students who took the course were 56 percent better in their diagnostic skills than those that didn’t.

At the time, Amy E. Herman, after practicing law for many years, had followed her heart back to the art world and was the head of education of the Frick Collection in New York City. And the way she helped these students become better doctors was by teaching them how to look at the art in their collection.

After 9/11, she cold-called the NYPD to offer the course to them The course was a hit, and others soon began calling. Her client list ballooned to include “the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, Scotland Yard, the US Army, National Guard, Secret Service, the Marshal Service, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Justice, The State Department, and the National Parks Service.” The class was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and she started getting even more calls, from “law firms, libraries, auction houses, hospitals, universities, Fortune 500 companies, banks, unions, and even churches.”

Herman has been teaching that “Art of Perception” class for fourteen years, and she has now turned that class into a book, Visual Intelligence, beautifully illustrated with the works of art she uses in the class. While it may all include looking at pretty pictures, however, it is a little more in depth and cognitively demanding than you might assume. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Herman makes them worth quite a bit more. She asks us to take a good long look at great works of art, and then spends pages dissecting and describing them in detail, asking what we’ve noticed, pointing out things we likely didn’t, and teaching us how to determine the facts in front of us, avoid assumptions, and see things more clearly, accurately, and truthfully, and then how to analyze that information and convey it to others (again—clearly, accurately, and truthfully).

Visual intelligence is, in short, “how to identify pertinent information, prioritize it, draw conclusions from it, and communicate it.” And that is where this crash course in art history gets rather scientific (neuroscientific, to be exact) because “What [it] all boils down to is that we don’t ‘see’ with our eyes; we see with our brains.” In fact:


The retina isn’t a passive pathway but a part of the brain itself founded in utero from neural tissue.


So we have to see the art of observation as not just an aesthetic activity, but a cerebral exercise. Neuroscientists have discovered our brains stay most fit, that they work best and fastest, when exercised regularly and in different ways. Looking at art, not just while walking past it, but immersing yourself in it, is a powerful way to do that.

What Herman will teach you in the process is how to turn off the autopilot you’ve been using to navigate your everyday interactions with others and your environment, and master “the four As”—or “how to assess, analyze, articulate, and adapt.” She will, in short, teach you anew how to see.


We can survive and thrive today if we know how to see.


To see what’s there that others don’t. To see what’s not there that should be. To see the opportunity, the solution, the warning signs, the quickest way, the way out, the win. To see what matters.


Herman opens the book with Derreck Kayongo, who saw something simple that most of us overlook: that the bar of soap in his hotel room was replaced every day. But he saw further than that, back to the refugee camps he grew up in, and to the devastating diarrheal disease so common and so rampant there—disease that could be avoided simply by washing one’s hands with soap, soap they didn’t have. He saw the connection between these two things, and began going to hotels to ask them if he could have their lightly used soap, soap they had been sending to the landfill. And extraordinary things have happened since Kayongo’s observation:


The Global Soap Project was born. He has since recycled one hundred tons of soap and distributed repurposed, life-saving bars … to people in thirty two countries on four continents.


Those are the connections that you can start to make when you see things clearly, when you take notice of the details, when you slow down and truly pay attention to the full truth and implications of what you're seeing and your surroundings instead of allowing yourself to be swept up in the speed and distraction of the world online and passing by around you. This is especially difficult in an increasingly connected and digitally distracted world, but Amy Herman shows how important it is, how it can improve your life, and how it can be done. And all you have to do to start is immerse yourself in some great and historic works of art.

The first incarnation of the class Herman teaches, the one at Yale for dermatology students, was developed because a professor noticed students were relying more on technology than their own power of observation, and were missing things right in front of them. The lesson and admonition she provides throughout the book boils down to this:


Your brain is more powerful than any gadget. Just turn it back on.


Amy E. Herman has spent a lot of time teaching first responders. What she has learned is that, in a world that changes quickly and demands quick reactions, the most important skill may be to learn how to slow down and properly observe what is actually in front of you. In Visual Intelligence, she shows you how.

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