How visually intelligent are you? Take Amy Herman’s perception test

We're only seeing a fraction of the world around us. Amy Herman teaches the art of perception; if you're game to test your visual intelligence, take one of her perception challenges here.

Amy Herman:  Visual intelligence is the concept that we see more than we can process and it's the idea of thinking about what we see, taking in the information and what do we really need to live our lives more purposefully and do our jobs more effectively. What I ask the people at The Art of Perception to do one of them is looking down at a piece of paper and the other is looking at the painting and they have one minute to describe what it is that they see to their partner and the partner has to sketch what are they hear. And it's not about the artwork, it's not about how well you draw it's how well can you describe a new set of unfamiliar data, how well do you listen and how well do you take that articulation and transfer it to your own language.

How many of you said there was a train coming out of a fireplace? And everyone raises his or her hands. And how many of you referenced smoke or steam in your discussion? Lots of hands go up. And then I ask the question who articulated that there are no tracks under the train? And a few astute people actually raised their hand and said I said there were no tracks under the train. And then I ask who noticed and then articulated that there was no fire in the fireplace? And hands go up. Not too many. Then we talk about other aspects in the painting. How many people mentioned the wood grain on the floor? Most people noticed the wood grain on the floor. How many people mentioned wainscoting, that kind of paneling on the walls? And I always have some decorative arts aficionados oh yes I know about wainscoting. And then I say how many of you mentioned a mantle on the fireplace? Lots of hands go up. Who mentioned candlesticks? Lots of hands go up. And then I ask how many of you said there were no candles in the candlesticks? And people say oh no never got there. And then I ask what really observant nerd said it's 12:42 or 8:05 on the clock? Who got to mention the time?

And the reason I have that line of questioning is because this painting illustrates a very important concept that I transfer from emergency medicine to a much broader application. And the idea is called the pertinent negative. It's saying what isn't there in addition to what is there to actually give a more accurate picture of what you're looking at. So when you say I see a train coming out of the fireplace, and by the way there are no tracks under the train and there is no fire in the fireplace, why would you attempt to say what's not there? Because in my third-grade mind if you told me to draw a fireplace I would draw two sticks and a fire and smoke in the fireplace unless you told me not to. And if you told me to draw a pair of candlesticks I'll draw candles with flames unless you tell me not to. So the pertinent negative is this wonderful concept that gives us a broader way of looking at something. Instead of looking at something like this you look at it like this.

And here's a example of how you apply that in the real world. The pertinent negative in a medical situation is when someone comes into the emergency room and they have all the symptoms, it appears to the physician they have all the symptoms of pneumonia. Pneumonia has three symptoms. Symptom one is present, symptom two is present, but if symptom three is absent it's the pertinent negative. You have to say septum three is not there therefore it's not pneumonia. So in the real world, outside of medicine, how can we use this? If we have an expectation of someone's behavior, you expect them to behave a certain way and then they don't you need to say it didn't happen. You're evaluating someone on the job. Well, you did A, B, and C very well but you didn't do D, E and F. So it's looking at the affirmative and looking at the negative. And the pertinent negative is a wonderful tool. Missing person's cases you go to their homes, what's not there? The cell phone is not there. The keys are not there. The wallet is not there. You're going to have a very different search for that person if those things were present instead of absent. So this Magritte painting gives us this great opportunity to talk about not just what we see but what we don't see to give the person who can't see what we see a much more accurate description of what they're looking at.

Sometimes it’s not what is there, it’s what isn’t. Let’s rewind.


Amy Herman is an art historian, lawyer, and the author of Visual Intelligence, a book that explains how altering and sharpening your perspective can change your life, both professionally and personally. Herman created, designed and conducts all sessions of ‘The Art of Perception’, an education program that was initially used to help medical students improve their observation skills. Sometimes in diagnostics, you’re not looking for what you can see, but what you can’t – this is called the 'pertinent negative'. The same goes for investigations, and so the program was adapted for the New York City Police Department.

Try one of Herman’s perception tests, which she runs you through in the video above. Better perception and communication – two key takeaways of Herman’s visual intelligence lessons – can save money, reputations and lives in business, and can also be an incredible asset in our personal lives when it comes to interpreting situations, noticing important details, and having open and effective communication.

The example above, which uses René Magritte’s artwork, is an incredible reminder of how much detail is around us that we don’t register and how we can be more conscious in our perception.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon backs this up. Baader-Meinhof is a cognitive bias also known as frequency illusion, where once you see or learn something – an unfamiliar word or new visual symbol for example – that thing keeps appearing over and over everywhere you go, where before it was never there.

But it was always there, you just never saw it. This isn’t some mystical occurrence or a series of "freaky" coincidences; we fail to notice thousands of pieces of information every day, and it’s only when our attention is deliberately drawn to something new that it registers, and our brains – incredible pattern-recognition machines that they are – then identify and favor that symbol or word when it is anywhere in our proximity.

There is more to discover in the world than is ever possible, but by enhancing your visual intelligence and perception skills, you can certainly make a more sizable dent.

Amy Herman is the author of Visual Intelligence:Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.