04/02/2008 03:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Change Blindness

Knowing of my interest in matters of attention and inattention, my wife pointed me to this fascinating article by Natalie Angier on change blindness in Tuesday's Science Times section of the New York Times. It seems that there's an awful lot we miss, in the visual realm, even when we think we're seeing; and that there's an intricate selection process that takes place in the brain, enabling us to exercise unconscious choice in selecting from the vast amount of information out there in the visual world -- a choice that can prevent us from noticing when change takes place, even in rather obvious things in our line of vision.

This is particularly interesting for me, in my art-writing hat, from the point of view of the way we look at works of art. When I find myself, as sometimes happens, talking to people who are puzzled or angered by what they see when they look at contemporary art, I'm always at pains to get them away from what they think they see -- usually their own prejudices -- and direct them to what's actually there, in front of their eyes. Most often, when we go into a museum or gallery, we take with us our own expectations and assumptions, and walk out having confirmed them -- but not having seen the art at all.

What do we see? Sometimes we think we see what we ought to see, conditioned by purely social expectations. We are expected to have heard, let's say, of Jasper Johns, so what we see when we look at a painting by this artist is what we have learned about him, what our teachers might have said, what such and such a critic might have written, what we think about the millionaire who has one hanging above the couch in his living room, and so on. The more we think we know, the more of this stuff we bring with us--and the more we have to sweep away if we want to see what's actually there. If I bring with me a pre-existing notion of what art should look like, based on a casual acquaintance with the history of art from the Renaissance through the Impressionists, anything that fails to fit the pattern of my prejudice -- a Picasso, say -- will seem like "something my child could do."

Some years ago, I designed -- and offered in a number of museum and gallery settings -- an experience called "One Hour, One Painting." The idea was to gather a small number of people to sit with me in front of a single painting for a full hour, and do nothing but look. Inspired in part by my knowledge that museum visitors spend an average of six seconds in front of any given painting, and in part by my experience as a meditation practitioner, the experience was a blend of open- and closed-eye work in which I, as the facilitator/narrator, would lead participants' eyes on a walk through the painting, inviting them simply to pay attention to certain features as we went -- and to those we missed on the first, the second, the third visit at the exact same spot. The session always ended with an invitation to find one last "surprise," a detail missed before, despite sixty minutes of attention to the same small area of canvas. This final moment of discovery always proved a favorite moment to participants.

The way I'd prefer to look at art -- and I confess I often fail to live up to my own standard -- fits right in with everything I have learned from the Buddhist teachings. It's about being in the present moment, about cutting through the bullshit with which we all too often confuse ourselves and those around us, about breaking the old patterns and habits that prevent us from clear insight. It's also about finding a kind of serenity, a place where I can discriminate, but have no need to judge, a non-attachment that allows the art-work to be precisely what it is, and not a reflection of my needs.

I also think that this notion of "change blindness" could have a much wider application. So much passes us by, when we fail to pay attention. I have in mind a future essay which will be titled "Who Are We? Really?" -- an essay that will explore the ways in which we allow inattention to blind us to social, political, and global realities that become distressingly obvious when we suspend our prejudices and take the time and trouble to look. We need to open our eyes to more than the purely visual information that surrounds us. I believe it's time for us to open them to other realities, too.