Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Sparks of Genius Challenge #1: Visual Observing

Heighten your imaginative skill by looking and looking again.

Posted Jun 13, 2015

Welcome to the Sparks of Genius Challenge! Welcome to visual observing, to looking and looking again.

Robert Root-Bernstein
Source: Robert Root-Bernstein

Observing is a primary imaginative skill useful in all walks of life. We tend to privilege the observing we do with our eyes, but we can observe with each of our senses. We can pay attention to what we see, or hear, or taste, smell, and feel. We can heighten that attention by looking with a purpose, by listening carefully, by thinking mindfully about the tastes, smells, textures, temperatures, pressures, and movements that we experience daily. The following exercises practice and improve your skill with one of the imagination’s most fundamental thinking tools. Go ahead! Observing is good for all ages!

Novice: Watch 20 minutes of television sitcom or drama with the sound on mute. What’s the story-line? How do you know?

[This first exercise draws attention to the many ways we observe and learn about the world by purposefully suppressing one of our senses. You might also try listening to a TV show with your eyes closed. Now what’s happening?]

Practitioner: Start a collection of things: leaves, stamps, shells, action figures, the little labels on grocery fruit, spices from around the world, city noises, water fountains, train rides, whatever. Keep a list of items on your collection, learn as much as you can about them and where they come from, and organize them by name, shape, color, texture, sound, smell, and so forth.

[The second exercise involves discriminating between like objects, and developing a fine sensitivity to their features: which shell is the smoothest to your fingers, which spice the hottest to your tongue?]

Master: “That which has not been drawn has not been seen.” So said Theodor Boveri, the scientist who discovered how cells divide and reproduce. Find an old shoe, a flower, or the innards of some broken machine and draw it. Then draw it again, upside down.

[The third and last exercise links skill in observing with skill in recording and copying what has been observed—by turning the context upside down and altering preconceptions of form you push your expertise that much farther. You prepare yourself to see what everybody has seen and observe something different, original and new.]

Finally, tell us what you’ve learned. We look forward to hearing about your experiences with the Sparks of Genius Challenge!

© 2015 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

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