Alexandra Horowitz

Cognitive psychologist Alexandra Horowitz spends a lot of her time trying to figure out what you—and your dog—are thinking. The author of Inside of a Dog and On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, she’s been taking experts around the block to find out how they envision the world around them. Horowitz agreed to come inside and join Conduit to discuss the wonders of glassblowing, getting lost, synesthesia, and other delights.



fred schmalz: You write that artists and children are people for whom everything is relevant, even the ordinary. How is the artist’s sensibility both sophisticated in the active perception of the ordinary and also childlike in allowing objects or experiences to remain undefined?

alexandra horowitz: I do think there is something childlike in the unwillingness of the artist to assent to the societal tenant that there’s one way to look at the scene in front of you. Something as simple as looking at negative space or giving attention to the light and shadows in a vista as opposed to the kind of societal way of looking at the things one can name in a scene. Those are ways to reject this provincialism in looking that comes with adulthood. I’m remembering that psychological work that compared, I think, the artist’s brain activity to some people with schizophrenia and found similarities in their abilities at tasks of divergent thinking, where they’re asked to come up with non-functional uses for a very familiar object, for instance. The idea there is that a person who we would define as mentally unstable and the artist are both less constrained by the rigid walls of the box.

conduit: You describe the city not as an absence of nature, but as concentrated—and in some ways constructed—nature. How are urban nature and art distillations or concentrations?

horowitz: I think concentration is a word that is apt for both conditions. If one is looking for something of the natural world in the city, it’s findable. It’s not there in spades, but a small moment might bring a small delight in interaction with an animal or seeing an animal’s path in an unexpected place. Similarly, art, produced as a focused, intentional creation and designed to change your perception in some way—to re-present something—could be considered as a concentrated form of what you might encounter naturally just through the day. Seeing a shape or a color or a face or a gesture or a synchrony of things or a sunset—that, while not intentional, certainly is artful, but in a much weaker way. In a much more fleeting way, much less distilled.

conduit: I think about concentrated humanity, or concentrated human nature, in cities.

horowitz: What that concentration has at some level is the kind of inverse effect, where it obliges one to see less of the humanness because there’s too much to look at. In that case, I think, it functions like the opposite of our…We kind of can’t even see all the humanity in the city and so we stop seeing any of it.

conduit: You write about how attention and focus act to limit noticing. Then you write, “The world is wildly distracting. It’s full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things. One way to solve the problem of the blooming, buzzing confusion is to tune much of it out.” Can you describe how ignoring the world around us operates and how it might both inhibit and enhance our sense of wonder?

horowitz: I think a lot of evolutionary psychologists take to understanding why we see what we do when we open our eyes, when we venture out in the world, is to imagine what function that seeing has for us. In this case, it’s “What is adaptive about attention?” They would suggest that for our forebearers it made sense to notice something that’s new in the environment. For instance, if you’re living on the savannah and you’ve got a small social group and not enough eyes to keep lookout for all the predators coming from any direction, you have to be vigilant for only one kind of thing, which is the new thing that comes on the scene. It might be something you want to pursue because it’s prey, or it’s a predator trying to capture you. So you’re vigilant only for that type of thing. Everything else you can learn to tune out. That’s part of the human race: a skillfulness in tuning out the world except for the things that are new or novel. Ontogenetically, when you talk about it from being a child to growing up and becoming an adult, we’re retracing the lineage of the species. We go from being children who are open to everything, not tuning anything out, and not really making sense of anything, to people who are skillful at tuning things out and not open to everything anymore. When we look back at our own childhood or we look at children around us, we remember that the thing that we’re attending to in most of our moments of the day is but an extreme minority of what’s happening. While all the things around us might not be equally wondrous or fascinating, certainly many of them are wondrous, and it only requires that we bother to turn off that skillful mechanism of tuning out and instead come back to that more aboriginal, childlike state to see some of those things.