Amy Herman Gives Presentation on Detail and Perception in Law and Health
By Aria Bracci | Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Before a room of about 50 students and staff, guest lecturer Amy Herman stood below a notorious photo—the pixely internet phenomenon known as “the dress.” Audience members laughed heartily, hands raised to indicate whether they saw the garment as white and gold or blue and black. But, true to the nature of her lecture “The Art of Perception,” Herman was quick to note the trouble that can arise when police officers, for instance, experience similar disparity in analysis.
With background in law and art history, Amy Herman stands at a crucial intellectual intersection. She argues that art, “the greatest chronicler of our time,” is so rich a platform for complex meaning, emotion, and detail, that people from varied backgrounds can find tremendous gains in its analysis. Such growth is taught through interactive presentations such as this, or, better yet, through physical trips to museums, such as the Frick Collection in New York City. Whether a nurse, CEO, or detective, the study of art has been shown to greatly enhance one’s trade, though most people Herman teaches have neither studied art nor visited a museum prior to the training.
Herman conceived her methods from a similar program out of Yale University, in which medical students were brought in masses to art museums. The point was to teach them how to accurately and intricately assess a situation, whether it be a painting or a patient. In Herman’s words, doctors’ observation skills would ideally be cultivated to a point where they would “see [their patients] as whole people, not just the gall bladder at bed two.” “Medical students have the worst myopia I had ever seen,” she laughed, referencing what is more colloquially referred to as “tunnel vision.”
In response to Herman’s conceit, her friend suggested that she offer the program to other people in need of enhanced observation skills, namely investigative cops. Finding logic in the extension, Herman called the New York Police Department. After seven line transfers, an eventual acceptance on the other end, and the explosion of a front-page Wall Street Journal article, Herman quit her full-time job to pursue the program.
Five years later, Herman is constantly traveling, administering her “Art of Perception” program to doctors, police officers, and members of national intelligence (which comprises about 25% of her presentations and for which she must arrive at an undisclosed location, train a group, and leave). During her stay at UMass, Herman gave talks to both nursing students and the general public.
In addition to an immense archive of images that she tailors “depending on goals and participants,” Herman’s program hinges onto a set of four central ideas, which she calls “The Four A’s”:
assess your situation, analyze your information, articulate your data, and adapt your behavior. In light of recent scandals surrounding law enforcement, she has since added “accountability” as a fifth point; however, this concept does not lose its relevance in other fields.
In fact, Herman emphasized self-perception as the underlying concept for all observation-based work. “We are accountable for our actions,” she said. “No matter how similar two situations are, they’re never the same, and we need to be able to articulate and distinguish among the situations that we work.” Though professionals might gravitate toward categorizing situations by similarity, there is fault in doing such. In any case, she emphasized, “the patient wasn’t the same, the family wasn’t the same, the time of illness wasn’t the same.”
Herman explained that observation informs perception, perception then informing inferences, but sometimes inferences cannot be reached unless the person developing this process lays the necessary framework. To illustrate this, Herman showed the audience two paintings of women and asked them to describe the images—not by what the subjects were wearing or how old they might be, but, first and foremost, that they were simply paintings of women.
When an audience member described a painting of George Washington as “exasperated” and a photo of Abraham Lincoln as “content,” Herman quickly exclaimed “Aha!,” demonstrating (simply by asking the audience members if they agreed with him, which many did not) that such an inference could and should not be made. “Don’t reach for what you want to see,” she said. She instead, as in the prior example, urged audience members to describe every basic detail before making assumptions.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Herman asked the audience members to gather in pairs. One person (“the describer”) had 45 seconds to describe an image to their partner (“the listener”), who was asked to close their eyes and attempt to visualize that image. Herman then displayed three photos—the original and two others—and asked the listener to choose the correct image. To the frustration of many, she pointed out that the correct image was the only one with a thin white border along two of the edges—a feature that, if mentioned by the describer, would’ve been a dead giveaway for the listener.
Herman revealed that in all the years of conducting this experiment, that feature has only been mentioned by six, four of whom were Navy Seals. “You never know when information is going to be the game-changer,” said Herman. In some cases, “it’s life or death.”