ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One day last month, a group of New York City police officers gathered in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to analyze a painting, "The Horse Fair" by Rosa Bonheur.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So how do we want to do this? Does she want us to break it apart?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I guess just observe what you see.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
They were taking a course with Amy Herman. She's an art historian, and she spent her career using art to teach people, like these police officers, how to more carefully and accurately perceive the world around them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I noticed all the white horses have their tails tied. Whereas all the brown horses have their tails loose.
AMY HERMAN: Do they look stressed?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. The male on the black horse looks like he's about to whip the black horse.
HERMAN: OK. Good, good visual introduction. Let me ask you all this question. If you're in this painting, what would it smell like?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Horse manure.
HERMAN: Horse manure, absolutely.
SHAPIRO: Amy Herman has a new book out now called "Visual Intelligence." I recently asked her how analyzing a painting from the 1800s can be useful to police officers today.
HERMAN: I'm taking them out of their everyday environment. I'm bringing these police officers and these investigators and intelligence professionals to an art museum to sort of clean the slate. And I get them to look at works of art and visual narratives and to use exactly the same kind of skills that they would use on the job when looking at a work of art.
SHAPIRO: So describe what you hope will happen when a police officer or an intelligence agent goes back to work after taking your course. What'll they do differently?
HERMAN: My hope is that when these intelligence and law enforcement professionals go back on the job that they will not only look at the crime scenes differently and surveillance activity differently that they will step back and say, maybe there's another way to see this, maybe the way that I'm looking at it isn't the only way to see it.
And then when they write their report or they send an email or a text, they think carefully about every word that they're using because one of the things that I emphasize is that every word counts because someone is listening to you.
SHAPIRO: I'd like to get more specific. In the book, there is a pair of images of presidents. One is President George Washington. The other is Abraham Lincoln. And you have the reader go through the exercise of looking at these two images and comparing them and analyzing them closely.
And after I did that, you point out in the book that the image of George Washington has a rainbow in the background, which I completely missed looking at the image.
HERMAN: You're in good company. Many people miss it.
SHAPIRO: What does a person who perceives that rainbow bring to the table that the person who misses the rainbow doesn't?
HERMAN: Well, first, I congratulate them because I tell them that, you know, we're not trying to play Where's Waldo with works of art, you know, with groups of adults in the room. But what I remind them is that in the history of American art, there are probably 25,000 paintings of George Washington. And I'm being conservative when I say that.
But if they remember the one detail of the painting that they saw in the art of perception or in the book - in "Visual Intelligence" - if they make note of and articulate that they saw a rainbow, they have just narrowed down the field from 25,000 paintings to three because there are three paintings of George Washington with a rainbow in it.
And you say, well, what difference does that make? Well, think about that in the workplace in a professional context. If you remember a small detail about a patient's life, you remember a small detail about a suspect's family where they said they go. If you remember small details about your clients, it can really bring the big picture together. So something like the rainbow - I say, well, is it critical to looking at the painting? No. Is it important? Yes.
SHAPIRO: You help build these skills by taking people through art museums, but you also argue that people can practice these skills pretty much anywhere.
If somebody's listening to this conversation right now while they're making dinner in their kitchen, what exercise can you give them to do at this moment that will help them build these perception skills?
HERMAN: I think when you're just looking around, I would ask myself - you're in the kitchen - if you stepped away from the kitchen, could you give someone an accurate visual description of everything that's on the counter? What things did you just take down? How many utensils have you used? And could you articulate the steps in making dinner? And you think, well, this is just ridiculous. I'm making dinner. I do this all the time.
But when we really think about what we're doing and we're able to articulate those skills, those are readily transferable, you know, when we have to be an eyewitness, when we have to articulate what we notice about our children when we go to the doctor and the doctor says, well, what's wrong? And just saying, well, I don't feel right, doesn't give them a good description. Be able to articulate everyday situations, not just the things that are emergency.
SHAPIRO: Amy Herman is the author of "Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Chang Your Life." Thanks for talking with us.
HERMAN: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.