How to see

I have been a fan and follower of Edward Tufte’s work, and data visualization in general, since I was in graduate school, when I came across The Visual Display of Quantitative Information sharing a bookshelf with the textbooks in the condensed matter theory office suite at Penn State. I even got to attend his course when I was working in the DC area. By the way, if you have the chance to go sometime, do it. It was time well spent and all-around awesome!

Anyway, I wanted to share an interesting parallel that I noticed between his current book/film project, The Thinking Eye, which is about how to see and reason about what one sees, and yoga. If this sounds like a spurious connection, bear with me for a few more lines. Your patience will pay off.

Tufte and Seeing

In 2013, Tufte was interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, where he discussed, among other things, “seeing”. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“Well, first, it’s about how to see, intensely, this bright-eyed observing curiosity. And then what follows after that is reasoning about what one sees, and asking: What’s going on here? And in that reasoning, intensely, it involves also a skepticism about one’s own understanding. The thinking eye must always ask: How do I know that? That’s probably the most powerful question of all time. How do you know that?”

“And so the seeing right then is being transformed into information, into thinking, right as that step from the retina to the brain. And the brain is really busy, and it likes to economize. And so it’s quick to be active and jump to conclusions. So if you’re told what to look for, you can’t see anything else. So one thing is to see, in a way, without words.”

Seeing and Yoga

The seeing that Tufte is talking about, when directed inward, becomes a powerful process of self-transformation and a powerful way to strengthen your mind.

In Yoga, much has been said about the importance of bring your attentiveness to its peak, and of what sort of things will happen when your can direct your attention towards something, without a break. In this direction, yogi and mystic Sadhguru has said:

“The only reason why someone is a mystic and someone is not, is lack of attention. Someone is an artist, someone is not. Why? Lack of attention. Someone can shoot straight and someone cannot. Why? Lack of attention. From the simplest to the highest things, it is just lack of attention.” (Isha Blog, 2013)

“This is the basis of yoga. There is no corner in the universe that will not yield to you if you know how to pay attention to it… It is only a question of the depth of your attention.”

Last October, Sadhguru was speaking to a large group of business leaders about attention being the key to success in their endeavors. Here’s an excellent Youtube video from the conference (Insight: The DNA of Success) where this topic is covered: 

When I’m teaching Hatha Yoga classes, I often emphasize the importance of visualizing yourself getting into and out of a given posture, especially those that you aren’t able to fully get into. There are several reasons for this, one of which is because it increases your ability to pay attention. But, instead of focusing on something external, your gaze is turned inward as you (try to) see yourself in each asana in as much detail as possible. Does that sound easy? Let’s do an experiment.

Hold up one of your hands. Take one minute and look at it. See it clearly. Now, close your eyes and visualize your hand in as much detail as possible. See it millimeter by millimeter. Can you see it? We’ve looked at our hands countless times in our lives, but we can’t visualize it so well. Instead, let’s start with something simpler, like a pen, or even better, draw a line segment on a sheet of paper. Take about five minutes and look at each part of the line, from one end to the other. Look at every point. See it in as much detail as possible. When you can close your eyes and can see the line clearly, then you can move on to the pen. Once you can recreate the pen in your mind, then you’re ready to move on to other things, like your hand. If you work at this, your ability to see will increase by leaps and bounds.

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Data visualization

So, I love data visualization. Unfortunately, I spend most of my time at work coding and don’t have as much time to analyze or visualize data as I’d like to. Though I’ve been working on making time for it lately. I also come across particularly nice ones from time to time, like the one below.

“A Visual History of Nobel Prizes and Notable Laureates, 1901-2012”, from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site. The visualization was created by Giorgia Lupi, of Accurat. Without further ado…