Friday March 1, 2013
Review by AMANDA SOO
On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes
Author: Alexandra Horowitz
Publisher: Scribner International, 324 pages
ALEXANDRA Horowitz made a name for herself in the field of psychology when her first book, Inside Of A Dog became a giant bestseller in 2009. That book looked into what dogs see, smell and know.
This time, in On Looking, she turns to humans (plus another dog). Horowitz takes a walk with 11 different individuals down ordinary streets and records the way they perceive their surroundings. If you’ve always zoomed through streets intent only on reaching your destination, what Horowitz does sounds painfully boring. After all, what can be observed that is new about your average city street?
A lot of things, as this journey with Horowitz and her walking companions proves.
In this book, the world comes alive through the mundane — in Horowitz’s experience with her co-walkers, nothing is too dull to be undeserving of attention. An old sofa thrown out on the street and the underside of leaves become objects of intense scrutiny to an illustrator and an entomologist respectively. During a stroll with a typographer, every letter seen on a flyer or the side of a taxi radiates its own personality. When walking with a geologist, the stones and pavements become living and breathing beings, revealing traces of what used to live in them.
Adding to the fascination is how Horowitz cleverly fuses witty storytelling with well-informed scientific explanation throughout. With her strong foundation in the cognitive and behavioural sciences, Horowitz backs up her observations with comprehensive scientific information and research.
That we subconsciously look in the direction of our destination – which makes others able to predict where we are headed just by observing the tilt of a head or the turn of a shoulder – is only one of many observations that give us a better understanding of ourselves.
Horowitz also takes us beyond just looking with the eye. Walking with a blind woman and a sound engineer opens up the senses to the world of sounds. In the case of the blind walker and the geologist, the tactile world of contact with the environment becomes a very important way to make sense of the world.
This book shows how a blessing can often be a curse as well. Most of us are blessed with the ability to ignore most of what is happening around us, especially when we have familiarised ourselves with a place. This is crucial in preventing our senses from becoming over-stimulated. At the same time, this is bad news to us as it means our senses have a tendency to shut down a little once there is a perceived sense of familiarity, convinced that we no longer have to actively absorb new information since everything is already so familiar.
We see so much of everything every day that we stop seeing things for what they are. They are reduced to mere background that passes by in a blur. There is a solution to this curtailing of our senses, though, and that is to realise that the extent to which our senses interact with the world depends on wanting to do so.
If you want to be delighted by revelations of human perception and behaviour not consciously known before, this is the book to check out. If not for any other reason, this book is a life lesson that teaches us to start paying real attention to our world.