A Second Look

Have you ever tried to look at the world in a really different way? Can you remember what it was like to see things as a child, before you knew what things were and what they meant? They say familiarity breeds contempt. Here are a few exercises that can help you to turn the familiar back into the unfamiliar.

Words and Symbols

Take a look at the words you are reading now. Now try to stop reading them, but still look at the symbols. You may want to read this paragraph and then look at it again, without reading the words. Look at the shape of the letters. Try not to ignore what the words mean and instead think just how the letters and words look. Instead of reading, look closely, like at the dot in this letter “i” or take a metaphorical step back and see the distribution of colour and lines across a whole paragraph. Forget that you know the order to read words, so instead of looking left to right, then down to the next line, scan the shapes in any and every direction. Try to recreate the experience of looking at English as if you were looking at a language you did not know, like Arabic or Thai or Japanese. Do it when you are out and about as well. Instead of reading advertising billboards, just look at the symbols and ignore the meaning.

Talking and Sounds

This exercise is a bit like the previous one, but with spoken language. Try this next time you are in a public place and can overhear somebody else’s conversation, or have the radio on (do not do it when your spouse is telling you to do something!). Avoid listening to the meaning of the words being said, and instead just listen to the sounds. Try not to pick out one word from another, just listen to the stream of noise. Ignore the meanings conveyed by intonation and cadence too, just listen like it is a language you have never heard before.

Alien Faces

There is lots of research to suggest that, even as babies, our internal wiring is designed to make us respond to facial expressions. Counteract that by looking at a face as if you had never seen one before. Forget what is an eye, a mouth, or a nose, and just look at the face as something new. Instead of seeing the meaning of an expression, or at least trying to interpret it, just see the shape of the lines and contours of the face. Imagine that, as you look at someone’s head, you did not know where the face starts and ends, or even that it is special. Look at a human face as if you were an alien, and the human face was something unknown, to be learned about for the first time. Ignore your knowledge of how people smile or frown, and instead just see the ways the facial muscles have changed the shape of the features. Try this exercise on people you know really well, and also on the faces that get presented in the media.

Colours Without Objects

Have you ever looked at a picture and been momentarily confused about what is in it, like those optical illusions where you could see a vase or two faces?

Try to see the whole world like you were uncertain of what were the objects in it, and what was the background. Try not to pick out the edges of things. Lose focus on specific objects, and instead see fields of colour. Disregard the boundaries between different physical things. Ignore your knowledge about where one thing starts, and another ends. If you cannot see something, it does not exist, so if you can see two legs of a table, forget your knowledge that there are another two you cannot see. Do not see any particular ‘thing’ just look at the whole like you might look at an abstract canvas, not picking out anything in particular. If you do focus on a part of what is visible, try to avoid seeing the edges of what you know to be an object, and look at it is if you have no knowledge of the boundaries between one thing and the next. See the world like a giant and three-dimensional pattern, where the colours have no relation to any underlying reality.

Moving and Standing Still

If you described the physics of walking around, it would make no difference if the world was a fixed point, and you move upon it, or if you were a fixed point, and the world was moving. Whilst you are walking, think of the world moving backwards, whilst you remain in the same spot. Your feet are turning the world backwards, as if you are spinning it like a giant ball. If you turn your neck to the right, think of it that your head has not moved at all, but that the rest of the body has spun around to the left, moving the whole world with it. When you move your eyes, try to do the same thing, so if you look up, your eyes have stayed perfectly still, but their sockets have spun around them, moving your head, body and the whole world around too. It may help, to begin with, if you resist the temptation to turn your head, and keep your eyes looking dead ahead. As you get the hang of it, move your head very slowly and deliberately, whilst keeping your eyes still. Then, as you get more confident, move your eyes in a very controlled manner. Try to imagine that, in this world, your eyes have never really moved, and that everything else is moving around them.

What is the point of these exercises? We all think we know how the world looks, but really how it looks depends on how we understand the world. We are aware of more than just what our senses tell us, we are also aware of our knowledge. If I see person side-on, I know they have two legs even though I can only see the nearest one. If somebody raises the corners of their mouth, I see a smile, and not just the crescent shape of that expression. Experiencing the world differently might liberate us, just briefly, from some of our prejudices about how it works. It is a reminder that none of our knowledge is a given, that it may not be permanent, and it may not even be right. Ancient Egyptians who could read hieroglyphics would see them very differently to me. Other animals do not see our faces or hear our voices like humans do. Someone may be smiling to deceive me about their true feelings. I see an accident, but when asked to explain what happened, I recount the assumptions I made, and not what I actually saw. These exercises encourage different points of view. They are neither right nor wrong, but they are different. The more you do them, the easier you will find them to do. A second look at the world can remind us of what we really saw first time around.

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