Looking vs Seeing; Listening vs Hearing

looklistenI recently watched a photography lesson where the instructor gave a lengthy discussion on the difference between looking and seeing. The lesson itself was “How to See Like a Photographer.” They were very careful in the wording of this lesson and the entire point was to illustrate the difference between “looking” and “seeing.” A great example was a person looking for their misplaced keys. I’m sure it would be easy to imagine a scene where you run frantically around all the rooms in your house looking for your car keys. You start in the most obvious place (the kitchen and the kitchen counters – the notorious place to accumulate miscellaneous things). You look and look and when you discover the keys are not there you start to extend your search to other rooms. You retrace your steps in hopes of going back to the spot where you last saw the missing keys. After many minutes of frustration you finally break down and ask your family members to help you. Come to find out, your spouse finds the keys sitting on the counter, right under your nose, despite the fact that you looked there several times. The problem was that you were “looking” for the keys, but not “seeing” exactly what was on the counter.

Our brains use our memory to fill in the blanks on so many things. Whenever we look around at scenes that we are familiar with we are really only seeing half of the matter. Our brains automatically fill in the rest with what it thinks should be there. We really only “see” things properly when we see them for the first time. In those instances our brains don’t have the past experience to override reality. The lesson I was watching suggested spending 5 minutes purposefully looking at objects around the room, pointing to them and calling them by some other completely different object. For instance, look at and point to your telephone and say “umbrella.” Continue to do this for several minutes until your brain is so confused that it will start to really see things for what they are.

One of the biggest reasons why I love photography so much is that it forces me to see the world differently. When I’m looking for a shot I really open my eyes and take the time to see things in a much different way than I normally would.

Yesterday I realized that this theory also applies to listening. During my morning run I had my headphones on (like I always do) and I was listening to the same old play list (like I always do) and l listened to the same songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times. Despite the fact that I’ve “heard” them hundreds of times, yesterday I became aware that I never really “listened” to the lyrics. Normally music is playing in the background when you’re busy doing other things. You hear the melody and the tunes, but it’s nearly impossible to really listen unless that is all you are doing. Playing music through headphones seems to make all the difference. Suddenly you can hear the words, and not only just hear the words, but listen to the story and understand the meaning.

The song that made me realize this was Jack Johnson’s “Cookie Jar.” After waking up to news about a young man opening fire with an assault weapon at LAX I suddenly became interested in the story that Jack was telling through this song. Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics:

“Well, it wasn’t me,” says the boy with the gun,
“Sure I pulled the trigger, but it needed to be done,
Because life’s been killing me ever since it begun.
You can’t blame me, ‘cuz I’m too young.”

“You can’t blame me; sure the killer was my son,
But I didn’t teach him to pull the trigger of the gun.
It’s the killing on this TV screen.
You can’t blame me; it’s those images he’s seen.”

“Well, you can’t blame me,” says the media man,
“Well I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan.
And I just point my camera what the people want to see.
Man, it’s a two-way mirror and you can’t blame me.”

“You can’t blame me,” says the singer of the song
Or the maker of the movie which he bases life on.
“It’s only entertainment and as anyone can see,
Its smoke machines and make up man, you can’t fool me.”

It was you, it was me, it was every man.
We’ve all got the blood on our hands.
We only receive what we demand,
And if we want hell, then hell’s what we’ll have . . . .

How many times have I “heard” this song, but this was the first time that I really listened to it. It made realize how disappointing it must be to be the artist with a serious message to tell the world, and the world is happily buying the music up and playing it daily, but in many instances completely missing the intended message.  The whole experience just made me realize how much of life we are missing by not going out of our way to pay attention. Our brains have a way of putting us on cruise control and sailing through life without taking it all in. It really does takes some effort to see (rather than look) and listen (rather than hear) the world around us.