The cognitive tool of perception is critical to both the arts and the sciences. We envisage it as a two-layered process, requiring both observing and imaging. Observing is the first step to understanding anything and is a finely tuned skill based on intent focus on, attention to, and curiosity about information gathered through the five senses. For example, bacteriologists use their sense of smell to observe bacteria, or an ornithologist might identify bird species by sound. Inventors and mechanics cultivate hands-on experience with tools and machines - relying on a sense of “feel” to know how tightly a knob or mechanical part is screwed on. A higher level of observation calls for imaging, or the ability to evoke or bring to mind the impressions/sensations we observe, without the presence of external stimuli. Artists, scientists, mathematicians and engineers all have well-developed imaging skills and find them essential for the work they do.


ObservingImagingObserving ExpertsImaging ExpertsObserving SkillsImaging SkillsConclusion


Observing is making sense of sensation, involving examination and visualization in order to decribe something.

All knowledge begins in observation. We must be able to perceive our world accurately to be able to discern patterns of action, abstract their principles, make analogies between properties of things, create models of behaviors, and innovate fruitfully.



Simply looking, even patiently, is not sufficient. Part of seeing … is knowing what to look at or for.

Do you see dancers?


Discovering the sublimity of the mundane is not limited to scientific observers. Much of modern art has focused on rethinking the value of everyday phenomena. “The true creator,” Stravinsky wrote, “may be recognized by his [sic] ability always to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note.”

How do you see your kitchen?

Tea Bag by Claes Oldenburg, 1996. "I often drop the bags I use when drinking tea, and the effect is that of a 'print'.... I always try to establish a corresponding effect outside of art for what I do in art."
Tea Bag by Claes Oldenburg, 1966


Images may be perceived and communicated not just as pictures, but in many other, nonvisual ways. We not only see with the mind’s eye, we hear with the mind’s ear, imagine smells and tastes and body feelings—and any or all of these sensation pictures may be involved in the imagination and communication of images. To put it another way, if we observe with our eyes, we form a visual image. If we observe with our hands, we form a tactile as well as a hand-position, hand-movement image. If we observe with our nose, we form a smell image that may play a major role in scientific or artistic invention. What we can observe, we can imagine; what we imagine, we image.


There is, however, one downside to becoming a dexterous imager: the better one’s skill, the more frustrated one may become in trying to present images directly to people. The need to translate through another medium can be painful… We remain in that “primitive” state in which all mental images must still be translated through other mediums, be they words, music, movements, models, paintings, diagrams, films, sculptures, or mathematical treatises.

Julian Beever is an English chalk artist[1] who has been creating trompe-l'œil chalk drawings on pavement surfaces since the mid-1990s. He uses a projection technique called anamorphosis to create the illusion of three dimensions when viewed from the correct angle.


Imaging draws on expereince and is largely a private and personal shorthand of sights, sounds, and other sensations, ranging from realistic representations of phenomena to idiosyncratic abstractions and sensory associations.

Everyone benefits from the development of imaging technique that comes with hands-on experience in arts and crafts, or with simple mental practice. Point to remember: the visual image is only a sign, not nature itself.


mind work

Imagery plays a central role in invention in general…Indeed, imaging benefits people in all professions.


Art does not render the visible, it makes visible.



The mind must be trained to observe just as much as we train the eyes, the ears, the nose, or the hands.



Most imaging is actually polysensual.

Use your senses!

The keenest observers make use of every kind of sensory information. In fact, the greatest insights often come to individuals who are able to appreciate the “sublimity of the mundane,” the deeply surprising and meaningful beauty in everyday things.

Being deprived of one sense can indeed sharpen our reliance on others, though not on their actual acuity. We learn to use sensory stimuli that we usually ignore, and sometimes such heightened attention results in original insights.

From garbage to art!

Individual imaging preferences have important implications for the way we teach mathematics and other scientific subjects. For example, teaching children music patterns and memory with hand bells....


This section may be most useful for teachers within particular disciplines (or perhaps across disciplines) as you can find information about the observers and imagers discussed by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein in Chapters 3 & 4 of Sparks of Genius. In most cases, clicking on a person's name or accompanying image will take you to information about them on Wikipedia. Beneath the accompanying images, links can be found to some of their works and other resouces through which deeper discoveries can be made.




Henry Bates
John Cairns
Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Charles Darwin
The Works of Archimedes
Contributions to an insect fauna of the Amazon Valley : Lepidoptera : Heliconidae (1861)
See Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists by Alison Richards, Lewis Wolpert
Comparative study of the sensory areas of the human cortex

Jared Diamond
Thomas Eisner
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRaqYRKzzN20wFLG6oIFtNKalB3Rb7MJBbHbNmxTwOSJ3bdbBITfg
Karl von Frisch
external image Bee_dance.png
Primo Levi

See Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists by Alison Richards, Lewis Wolpert
Bibliography of Eisner's Work
Decoding the Language of the Bee
The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees

Konrad Lorenz
Fritz Muller
Edward Rickets
external image Bust_of_Ricketts.JPG
Nathaniel Shaler
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King Solomon's Ring
Butterfly Hunting in Many Lands
Works are not known to have survived
The Log from the Sea of Cortez
The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler
Elwyn Simons
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Albert Szent-Györgyi
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Gerald Thayer

external image Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Cotton-Tail_Rabbit_among_Dry_Grasses_and_Leaves_-_Gerald_H._Thayer_-_overall.jpg
John Tyndall
external image TyndallsSetupForMeasuringRadiantHeatAbsorptionByGases_annotated.jpg
Geerat Vermeij
external image Vermeij_DSCN1651.jpg
Elwyn Simons: A Search for OriginsSee Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists by Alison Richards, Lewis Wolpert
Concealing-coloration in the animal kingdom: an exposition of the laws of disguise through color and pattern: being a summary of Abbott H. Thayer's discoveries
Links to Works by Tyndall
Touching Evolution: A History of Shells

Alfred Russel Walace
external image Alfred_Russel_Wallace_1862_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15997.png

**Sir Francis Seymour Haden**

external image Seymour_Haden.jpg

Contributions to the Theory of Natural SelectionDarwinism

The relative claims of etching and engraving to rank as fine arts, and to be represented as such in the Royal Academy of Arts


e. e. cummings
external image E._E._Cummings_NYWTS.jpg
Daphne Du Maurier
external image Young_Daphne_du_Maurier.jpg

Dr. Joseph Bell
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W. Somerset Maugham
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Marianne Moore
external image Marianne_Moore_1935.jpg
The Paintings of e. e. cummings
e. e. cummings poems
Myself When Young: The shaping of a writer
A Manual of the Operations of Surgery
The Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics & Legal Reasoning
See Writer to Writer: Readings on the Craft of Writing
Interview with Donald Hall
Vladimir Nabokov
external image Nabokov.jpg
Herbert Read
external image Herbert_Read_1958_sitting_w_dog.jpg

John Steinbeck
external image John_Steinbeck_1962.jpg
Wyndham Lewis
external image Wyndham_Lewis_photo_by_George_Charles_Beresford_1913.jpg
Speak, Memory
Education Through Art

The Log from the Sea of Cortez
The Wyndham Lewis Collection


Eugène Delacroix
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Marcel Duchamp
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Jasper Johns
Paul Klee
external image Paul_Klee_Self_Portrait_1911.jpg
René Magritte

Henri Matisse
external image Portrait_of_Henri_Matisse_1933_May_20.jpg
Georgia O’Keeffe
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Claes Oldenburg
external image Claes_Oldenburg%2C_1990.jpg
Beverly Pepper
Pablo Picasso
external image Pablo_picasso_1.jpg

Vincent Van Gogh
external image VanGogh_1887_Selbstbildnis.jpg
Julian Beever

Oskar Schlemmer


Richard Boleslavsky
external image Ryszard_Boleslawski.jpg
Merce Cunningham
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Anna Halprin
Georg Philipp Telemann
external image Telemann_4.jpg
Olivier Messiaen
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQLLeXKnpkv65h1-7Cu3btnEhT6nsMjQFKa0DW2mpvIXytslV4HyA
Acting: The First Six Lessons
Mondays With Merce
Changes: Notes on Choreography
Anna Halprin's Website
See Composers on music: an anthology of composers' writings from Palestrina to Copland
Musique et Couleur
Birdsong in Messiaen
Mark Morris
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Alwin Nikolais
external image 286_am_nikolais_about.jpg
Robert Schumann
external image Schumann-photo1850.jpg
Konstantin Stanislavsky
external image Stanislavski_Constantin-1.jpg
Igor Stravinsky
external image Igor_Stravinsky_LOC_32392u.jpg
The Mark Morris Dance Group Website
See The Vision of Modern Dance: In the words of its creators
Tensile Involvement
Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians
Composers on Music: an anthology of composers' writings from Palestrina to Copland
An Actor Prepares
Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons



Sir James Black
Sir James W. Black
Sir James W. Black

Peter Carruthers
external image peter.JPG
Peter Debye
external image Debye100.jpg
Richard Feynman
external image Feynman_at_Los_Alamos.jpg
Robert Fulton
external image Robert_Fulton_-_Circle_of_Thomas_Sully.jpg

Margaret Geller
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François Jacob
François Jacob
François Jacob

Sofya Kovalevskaya
external image Sofja_Wassiljewna_Kowalewskaja_1.jpg
Sophus Lie
external image Lie.jpg
James Lovelock
external image James_Lovelock_in_2005.jpg

Peter Mitchell
Peter D. Mitchell
Peter D. Mitchell

Samuel Morse
external image Samuel_Morse_1840.jpg
Henri Poincaré
external image JH_Poincare.jpg
Georg Riemann
external image Georg_Friedrich_Bernhard_Riemann.jpeg
Ann Roe
external image anne.jpg

Elmer Sperry
external image Elmer_Ambrose_Sperry.jpg
George Gaylord Simpson
external image George_Gaylord_Simpson.jpg
Charles Steinmetz
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Nikola Tesla
external image Tesla3.jpg
Karl Weierstrass
external image Karl_Weierstrass.jpg

Norbert Wiener
external image Wiener_process_3d.png


external image Gilbert_Keith_Chesterton2.jpg
Samuel Coleridge
external image SamuelTaylorColeridge.jpg
Charles Dickens
external image Dickens_Gurney_head.jpg
Margaret Drabbleexternal image Margaret-Drabble_1005037c.jpg
Pierre Hermé
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Pierre Herme Official Website
Amy Lowell
external image Amy-Lowell.jpg
Henry Miller
external image Henrymiller.jpg
Donald Murray
external image donald_murray.jpg
Johann Pestalozzi
external image Johann_Heinrich_Pestalozzi.jpg
Siegfried Sassoon
external image Seventeen.jpg

Stephen Spender
external image Stephen_Spender.jpg
William Thackeray
external image William_Makepeace_Thackeray_by_Jesse_Harrison_Whitehurst-crop.jpg
Charlie Trotter
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Tennessee Williams
external image Tennessee_Williams_NYWTS.jpg


Ansel Adams
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Max Bill
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Edvard Munch
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Paul Strand
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George Antheil
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David Bar-Illan
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Ludwig van Beethoven
external image Beethoven.jpg
Henry Cowell
external image Henry_Cowell_composing_1960s.jpg
Martha Graham
external image Martha_Graham_and_Bertram_Ross.jpg

Arthur Honegger
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Charles Ives
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Alicia de Larrocha
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
external image Croce-Mozart-Detail.jpg
Luciano Pavoratti
external image Luciano_Pavarotti_in_Saint_Petersburg.jpg

Anna Sokolow
external image Anna_Sokolow.jpg


This section is devoted to building your perception skills.


  • Practice observing by being blindfolded. What do you feel? Smell?
  • Close your eyes and attempt to construct what is going on nearby through sound.
  • Select an object, notice its form, it's lines, its colors, its sounds, its tactile characteristics, its smell, perhaps even its taste. Then remove the object and recall one by one as many details as possible. Write about what you perceived or draw it. Go back and observe it again.



Activity: Step 1-- Look at the image above close up. Who do you see? (Albert Einsten)

Step 2--Now take a few steps back and look at it again, do you see someone else? (Marilyn Monroe!)


For all these reasons we advocate explicit observational exercises in classes in every subject. All students need to develop sensory acuity.



  • What do you image while listening to Mozart ? Could you explain what you heard in words, draw a visual representation, or nonverbally communicate the rhythm, meaning, and intent of the piece? What emotions does the piece invoke?
  • Make up excuses to use your inner eye, your inner ear, your inner nose, your inner sense of touch and of body.
  • Think concretely about abstract concepts.
  • Pay attention to visual, aural, proprioceptive, and other sensations daily.
  • Don't just learn, do!

You can try more complicated imaging problems, such as those proposed by Max Wertheimer in his 1959 book Productive Thinking.



Observe an ordinary item and try to reimage it into another form.

What do you see? How do you feel?


What does the color show you? Could you perceive the season because of the color? Did color arouse other senses? Does the distortion or lack of color add anything to the picture?



Drawing conclusions -- from both sides of the brain, a summary of sorts.


  • Szent-Gyorgyi argued, “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”
  • Because the “mind’s sense” that control the “senses of the body” skew and filter what we experience, objective observation is not possible.
  • Observing is a form of thinking, and thinking is a form of observing. In consequence, the purpose in practicing observation is to link sensory experience and mental awareness as closely as possible.
  • Although some people have a greater proclivity for visual imaging than others, everyone benefits from practice. So even if you need to draw images or model them at first, working with these problems will train your visualizing ability. The more your practice, the more you will be able to partake of and understand the visual thinking process of countless inventors, mathematicians, physicists, artists, writers, and dancers.
  • If one of the objects of education is to produce lifelong learners, what better recommendation for practicing the skill of observation and imaging could one want?



Additional resources to assist you in extending your perception journey.


Helen Keller in Her Story. American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. Original Film interviews with Keller, revealing her incredible intelligence.


The Exploratorium in San Francisco is one of the world's best hands-on museums specializing in science but exploring the arts as well. See their exhibits and other educational materials at


Bang, Molly. 1991. Picture This//. Boston: Bullfinch Press. An introduction to principles of visual design and visual thinking.