Looking and Seeing: There Is a Difference.

The words see and look may be synonyms in everyday conversations but when it comes to observation and situational awareness, the words have two different meanings. Look is defined as “to direct your eyes in a particular direction,”[1] while see is defined as “to notice or become aware of (someone or something) by using your eyes.”[2] The biggest difference between the two is that looking is passive and seeing is active. Due to the type of society we live in, most of us don’t have to worry minute to minute about our safety. Abraham Maslow identified safety as the second layer in his hierarchy of needs. Since most of us generally have this need met, we tend to have poor observation skills. That is to say, we look at, instead of see our surroundings. This is also amplified by the amount of distractions the technological age has brought with phones, MP3 players, etc. Case in point:

In the book How to think like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova explains that we operate with two different types of minds. One mind is lazy and set to autopilot, while the other is active and thorough.[3] We spend a lot of our time using the path of least resistance by looking, unless something forces us to see. Our goal is to train ourselves to see rather than look the majority of the time or simply to use our thorough mind and avoid autopilot.

In previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I explain how repetition and practice of certain exercises can help build situational awareness and that with time it becomes so natural that we don’t even notice we do it anymore. In essence, we learn to see. With that being said, I believe that it is important to understand that, although it becomes second nature to us, we still need to be mindful that we are doing it. If not, we are just going into autopilot. For example, at some point, I’m sure we all have been reading and at the end of the page had no idea what we just read. That is an example of autopilot or mindlessness . The goal is mindfulness. Dr. Ellen Langer, from the Psychology Department at Harvard University, describes mindfulness as “a state of conscious awareness in which the individual is implicitly aware of the context and content of information.”[4]

Watch this short video:

The video is kind of a trick but it does bring up a few good concepts, but I want to focus on one for this post, if you are very focused on one thing you will likely miss changes around you. This is why criminals use ploys, distractions and teamwork. The point is to use mindfulness or as Gavin De Becker would say, to be “totally present and in the now.”[5]

How do we use mindfulness to stay in the present moment? Well for starters, be conscious or mindful of your thoughts. Don’t allow your mind to wander from your observations or start creating stories about your observations. Secondly, be active in what comes into your visual field and know what details to focus on and what details to disregard (disregard in the sense of using to see threats not identification). For example, if we use preconceived notions and bias opinions based off of profiling of people by race, religion, clothing choices, sex, or any other imprecise aspect, we become solely focused on irrelevant details (for detecting violence) and will likely miss important key behavioral cues.[6]

The overall idea is to be present and not clutter our minds with irrelevant information that doesn’t allow us to actually see what is unfolding right in front of us. Our eyes take in “about one million point images per second,”[7] trying to focus on everything is impossible, likewise, focusing on dinner, a fight with our spouse, tonight’s football game or our cell phones while trying to be observant is equally impossible.



1 “Look.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/look&gt;.
2 “See.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/see&gt;.
3 Maria Konnikova How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (New York, N.Y..: Peguin Group 2013), 18
4 Ellen J. Langer (1992). Matters of mind: Mindfulness/mindlessness in perspective Consciousness and Cognition 1(3), 289-305.
5 Gavin De Becker, Tom Taylor, Jeff Marquart Just Two Seconds, The Gavin de Becker Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, 60
6 Patrick Van Horne, Jason Riley Left of Bang (New York, N.Y..: Black Irish Entertainment LLC 2014), 30-31
7 Retrieved from http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/book97/ch3/retina.comment.html

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