Several years ago, my daughter, who is now 7, drew a picture of the gym where she was taking gymnastics. My main impression of this gym was that it smelled of dirty socks and that it was a hectic place. But how did my preschooler see it? Her drawing included mats, balance beams, vaulting horses and bars. But she had spent far more time on two less obvious features of her gym. One was the gargantuan and loud fan that the coaches ran during the summer. This fan dominated her drawing, and she had drawn lines showing air rushing from it. The other was the small set of metal bleachers where the parents sat. I was there, helpfully labeled in her childish script, "Mama."
To my daughter, the gym was about the big, noisy fan and mom in the bleachers, the latter perhaps not so surprising because this was the first class in which we dropped her off and came back at the end, and she had some anxiety about it. I surmised that she checked the bleachers often for me and felt relief when I appeared toward the end of her class.
My daughter's drawing of her gym was a potent reminder that two people can see the same thing very differently. We have, of late, had many such reminders. Sandy Hook is either a reason to limit gun ownership or to go buy more of them. President Obama is either too conservative or a socialist, a prime example of the American Dream or an outsider. The poor are either lazy "takers" or unlucky victims of a cruel economy. Climate change is either a coming cataclysm or a hoax. Abortion is either a central women's right or murder. Government either knits our nation together or is its undoing.
So much of the debate over these issues is marked by acrimony. Each side thinks the other is stupid and naive, corrupt and ignorant. Neither side seems to understand the other side, or have much interest in doing so.
Alexandra Horowitz's excellent new book, "On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes," is an unexpected and soothing balm for our inflamed tempers over these issues. "On Looking" has nothing to do with politics, but it is about how we each view the world, and about how perspective is shaped by professions, passions, age, families and physical abilities. Mostly, "On Looking" is a refreshing celebration of the rewards of trying to see the world through the eyes of others.
Horowitz is no stranger to this sort of approach to the world. She is the author of the 2009 best-seller, "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know." A cognitive scientist, she teaches courses on canine cognition and animal behavior at Barnard College. She possesses a generous imagination and is an expert in trying on other points of view, from pups to artists to insects. In "Inside of a Dog," she writes a moving ode to the single-minded life of a tick:
"Of all the sights, sounds and odors of the world, the adult tick is waiting for just one. It is not looking around: adult ticks are blind. No sound bothers the tick: sounds are irrelevant to its goal. It only awaits the approach of a single smell: a whiff of butyric acid, a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures (we sometimes smell it in sweat). It might wait here for a day, a month or a dozen years. But as soon as it smells the odor it is fixed on, it drops from its perch. ... If it is lucky, the warm, sweaty smell is an animal and the tick grasps on and drinks a meal of blood. After feeding once, it drops, lays eggs, and dies."
If Horowitz can find pathos in the plight of the tick, can we not conjure up some understanding of those on the other side of the gun control debate?
In "On Looking," Horowitz takes 11 urban walks with people with wildly divergent points of view. She walks with her 19-month-old son, a woman who is blind, a geologist with the American Museum of Natural History, an artist, a doctor who specializes in people's gaits, a typographer and others with unique perspectives. Her aim is to see the world through their eyes, to, in her words, "knock myself awake" to the rich world around her.
For everyone, much of the world, she writes, remains unseen, un-experienced and unloved:
"You missed that. Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw ...."
What we choose, unconsciously or consciously, to attend to defines our worldview. Not knowing what is useful information and what is not, a child takes in a confused mishmash of impressions. Growing up is about learning how to edit out almost everything.
Walking through Manhattan with the geologist Sidney Horenstein, Horowitz learns to see the city as a landscape of rock. "What an epiphany to reconceive a city — which feels just like a jumble of man-made objects — this Horensteinian way," she writes.
Horenstein, who easily can rattle off 60 different kinds of rock used to build the American Museum of Natural History, sees these rocks as "friends." His city — filled with these friends — is quite different from ours, or from Horowitz's. His is a city informed by expertise, she writes. He literally sees it differently, something that can be captured by neuro-imagery. "Watch the brains of dancers while they watch a dance performance, and you will see considerably more activity than you would find in the brains of non-dancers," she writes. "Expertise leads to the ability to acquire more expertise."
A grandmaster chess player can remember between 50,000 to 300,000 "chunks" of chess, she writes. A casual chess player cannot absorb so much chess information. "The difference is the scene is meaningful to the chess master but not to the novice," she wrote. "To the expert, every piece relates to the others, and every arrangement of pieces on a board relates to previous boards the player has seen or made. They become as familiar as friends."
We have all experienced the transformation of something opaque and seemingly dull into something fascinating and exciting. For me, it was baseball. For most of my life, I understood little about the game beyond the most basic rules. I didn't follow players or teams. The game was boring to me, and I didn't understand what anyone got out of it.
But my husband is a baseball nut, and so, over time, I learned about strategies and teams and players and their history. Slowly, I developed a low level of expertise, and the drama of the game revealed itself. This sort of revelation is one of the great pleasures of life. It requires an open heart, an open mind and willingness to do a little work.
Perhaps it is here we are stuck as a nation. We see those with other viewpoints like I saw baseball — opaque, difficult to understand, difficult to appreciate. The game seemed hardly worth the trouble. And yet, I gained so much by trying a little and finding someone willing to share his passion and his expertise.
This is not to say, I should add, that all viewpoints are equally correct. Facts are facts, and not all views are based in fact. But we still gain a lot by trying to understand each other, by seeing the world through each other's eyes. And we are far more likely to want to compromise if we sense the other side is trying to understand our perspective — and considers that worth the time and effort.
This means stepping outside our bubble of self-affirming media, visiting unfamiliar websites, talking to people with whom we disagree and re-friending on Facebook those with politics that annoyed us. It means listening to radio shows we didn't know existed and reading books we had dismissed. It means doing all of this with an open heart, with the friendly enthusiasm that marks Horowitz's book. Imagine injecting wonder in these difficult, angry debates. How strange! And yet, how useful:
"These walks re-awakened in me a sense of perpetual wonder in my surroundings — a perceptual skill typically available only to experts and to the very young (not yet expert in being people). Perhaps they will awaken wonder in you, too."
Trine Tsouderos is a frequent contributor to Printers Row Journal.
By Alexandra Horowitz, Scribner, 320 pages, $27