The art of seeing


An eye for detail not only helps us appreciate art better, it can also enrich our daily lives. How can we learn to really see well? Journalist Renate van der Zee deep-dives into how we can learn to look and see better.

“If you consciously focus on some details, you will see much more than if you just look around a bit,” says Dutch professor of cognitive psychology, Stefan van der Stigchel. He also carries out research into attention processes, and wrote the book How attention works – Finding your way in a world full of distraction. “Our brain can’t process all the information we’re getting, so we always have to filter it,” he explains. “And then you have two choices: you can let your attention be guided by everything that’s going on around you — for example, when someone enters a room, your attention goes there. Or when a painting in a museum has a lot of bright colors, it attracts your attention. But you can also direct your attention yourself by focusing on something consciously. On the beautiful details in the painting for example. I think looking at art can help you become aware of the fact that you can direct your attention. And that you see more that way than when you allow yourself to be led by the outside world.”

You see more if you look at one painting for a long time, than at ten different works shortly. And that is because paying attention needs time, Van der Stigchel says. “If you look at something briefly, you overlook all kinds of things, I guarantee it. For example, someone else can easily point out something that you hadn’t seen even though your eyes were focused on it. It really takes a while before you know what you’re looking at; your brain needs that time to process all the information.

And if you pay attention to a detail for a long time, like Van Zeil did looking at the swallow, then you will become automatically more susceptible to seeing swallows once you’re outside. Because something you’ve experienced before affects the way you look around you afterward. In science, we call that ‘priming’. This way you carry your museum visit along with you into the outside world.”

  • Read the full story ‘The art of seeing’ in Issue 33.

Text Renate van der Zee  Photography ©Javier Pardina/Stocksy United