Help me see the big picture.
June 9, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to see with an Asian eye?

I can't remember exactly where I read it, but the main idea is that when people from Eastern cultures view a painting, they tend to take in the whole of it first before they focus on individual details, whereas Westerners tend to do the opposite, honing in on the detail that catches their eye first before taking a step back and viewing the whole.

I know I am an extreme example of the latter style, but it goes beyond mere paintings to practical situations like when I walk into a crowded room and only see one person I know when in reality there might be two or three people there I know and end up inadvertently ignoring them until I realize they are there. Basically, I would be a terrible spy.

Does anyone have any tips or strategies for what I might be able to do to get better at taking in the whole picture, in the Asian style? I would also appreciate any other tips on how to increase my awareness and observational abilities in general, or whether people think this is even something that can be done?

posted by the foreground to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A simple trick, to start: stand further away from the painting and slowly make your way closer. Some of my favorite paintings look very different from across the room than they do up close.
posted by Uncle Ira at 11:41 AM on June 9, 2010

Looking at the whole picture is a little different from focusing on one thing in a picture and forgetting everything else.

Both take conscious effort at first, but will eventually become second-hand thing to do as you do it more often.

If you want to hone your "spy" skills, try this: make a checklist of things you think you should look for when you enter a room. Look for things like (1) exits (2) clocks (3) bathrooms (4) general head-count (5) seating areas (6) refreshments (7) windows (8) doors. This requires a quick scan of the room, during which you can kind of see everybody that's in it. The list can be altered to fit your circumstances.

I don't know about this being an Asian cultural thing, but it is a good skill to have nonetheless.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:55 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's something you can do right now, or wherever you are: sit back and mentally take note of everything you can see without moving your eyes. You won't see things in detail, but you will see how everything in front of you is positioned. Even when we're not looking at anything in particular, we often focus on one spot and tune out everything on the periphery. It's kind of a surprise to notice all the things that we can see, but that our brain often ignores for efficiency's sake.

(I've never heard of this being a cultural thing and would have guessed this just varies from person to person, but then again I haven't heard much about the way people look at art to begin with.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:12 PM on June 9, 2010

I have heard of this, in a Theory of Knowledge course for a friend's IB program. As I recall, the book they were assigned to read was not terribly scientific but did describe a number of studies involving eye-tracking of Chinese subjects looking at various scenes. We also apparently perform better in a task that requires the subject to interpret instructions from another person who isn't seeing the scene from the same vantage point---things like, realizing the speaker can only see one of the two blocks, so references to "the block" are actually unambiguous.

I would drop the whole Asian angle, though. I think the term you want is "situation[al] awareness" (wikipedia), which is extensively studied in areas like the military, air traffic control, and emergency medicine.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:20 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not sure about the 'Asian' attribution either, but I'm definitely a big-picture-first person. I think it's because I had bad eyesight and didn't get glasses til rather late in childhood, so because I literally couldn't see the details of a scene, I learned to see the gestalt first (overall shapes, colors, composition).

Try squinting a bit when you look at something, and look for the overall patterns that emerge. As an example, I've always thought that the Sistine Chapel ceiling shares a rhythm with a Jackson Pollock, and you wouldn't see this if you were focusing on detail or subject matter.

I'm a designer, and I think this way of seeing is a big part of having a natural 'eye' for things. Look at everything as a composition or positive and negative spaces, and think about how they come together into a whole rather than looking at an object and letting the background fall away. If you pretend you're looking at a 2D image, then the 'background' is a shape too, fitting in with the foreground like a puzzle piece. Lots of interesting things can happen in the interaction between the two.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 2:52 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The east Asian angle can actually be pretty important because some of the relevant hypotheses have to do how the person's first language is structured or written, and what type of things are given focus in the syntax of the language itself. The ones that don't have to do with strictly language are usually based in specific cultural hypotheses, or cultural norms in teaching spoken language, so I think knowing what culture you're talking about would be important for any theory.

I just realized that clarified nothing about why "east Asian" in specific shouldn't be thrown out. I'm pretty sure the reason Chinese and other east Asian cultures are used is because there hasn't been an awful lot of work done on this (some, but not masses) and people are picking the most "opposite" thing they can find where they can get a good sample size. For lots of the writing system hypotheses, Chinese is picked, since it's logographic and not alphabetic, for some of the word order/particle hypotheses, Japanese is picked, etc. I also have a vague recollection that there have also been studies done between American and some western European country (Italy?), but I don't remember what the results were, or if there was even a divergence in scene viewing.

How we see it: Culturally different eye movement patterns over visual scenes is the first paper I found when I Googled (I just skimmed the first couple of pages to make sure it was on topic, so I have no idea if I agree with the findings here, but they do reference several other pertinent works in the bibliography to check out.)
There's also a special edition journal called Cognitive and Cultural Influences on Eye Movements.

Just to let you know this is a real thing and people do study it. I'm not sure any of the research has really said definitively why the differences occur, only that they do, and telling you to learn Chinese isn't really reasonable. For a somewhat less time-intensive suggestion, I would look for those cheesy "spy-training" manuals or info for aviation professionals (I kept running into situational awareness in aviation training pages when I was Googling for this).
posted by wending my way at 3:09 PM on June 9, 2010

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